White horse breeds hold a special place in our imaginations. With their striking coats and majestic appearances, it’s easy to see why white horses are the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. Many think of unicorns or mythical pegasi when they envision these light-colored equines.
In reality, true white horses are quite rare. The genetics that produce an entirely white coat, pink skin, and dark eyes only occur in a handful of breeds. Additionally, these genetics present some challenges when it comes to breeding and caring for white horses.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes a white horse truly white, which breeds can produce white coats, and how breeders work to preserve these magnificent bloodlines.
What Makes a White Horse Truly White?
At first glance, it may seem that any horse with a white coat could be considered a white horse. In actuality, the genetics behind a truly white horse are complex and unique.
True white horse breeds have an entirely unpigmented coat, resulting in pink skin and white hair from birth. They also typically have dark brown or black eyes. This lack of pigment cells in the skin and hair is caused by genetic factors.
On the other hand, some white-appearing horses are not born white. Many white horse breeds start off as gray foals, then gradually turn white as the gray coat fades over time. These gray coats are the result of a particular gene present in the breed.
Additionally, a genetic condition called lethal white syndrome can affect horses. Foals born with this syndrome have an underdeveloped intestinal tract and do not survive more than a few days. Breeders must take care to avoid lethal white syndrome when working with white horse bloodlines.
The only way to truly identify a white horse is to consider its genetics. True white horses have minimal to no skin pigmentation and are born with a fully white coat that remains unchanged throughout their lives.
Breeds That Can Produce True White Horses
Very few horse breeds have the genetics to produce truly white foals. Here are some of the breeds that can yield true white horses:
Arabian horses originate from the deserts of the Middle East, where harsh sun and heat make pink-skinned horses unsuitable. Therefore, most white Arabians are actually gray horses that faded over time. Their skin remains darkened despite the pale coat.
However, it is possible for Arabians to be born with a dominant white gene resulting in a pink-skinned, white-haired foal. These true white Arabians are exceptionally rare.
2. American Paint Horse
American paint horses are known for their distinct color patterns of white and another color. The white markings of paint horses occur due to white hair on pink skin. So even though paint horses aren’t fully white, the white parts of their coat can be considered “true white.”
The graceful Lipizzan breed traces its lineage back several centuries to Europe. Lipizzans are born black or very dark brown. As they age, they gradually turn gray, then fully white between 6 and 10 years old.
While stunning when white, Lipizzans are not born white. The graying process is due to a particular gene present in the breed. However, their transition to white makes them appear as true white horses in adulthood.
4. Camarillo White Horse
Developed in California in the 1920s, the rare Camarillo White is a true white breed. They have an entirely white hair coat and pink skin from birth. Sadly, the line nearly went extinct before dedicated breeders revived the bloodline.
Any white Camarillo horses today are likely descendants of the small group of breeding horses that remained in the 1980s and ’90s. Their continued survival is a testament to the efforts of passionate breeders.
Thoroughbreds are most recognized as racehorses, but they can also be trained for elite equestrian sports and competition. While thoroughbreds come in many colors, true white does occasionally occur.
A dominant white gene is necessary for a thoroughbred to have pink skin and a full white coat. Though rare, this striking coloration does appear in some thoroughbred bloodlines.
6. American Quarter Horse
Developed in the United States from English and colonial Spanish breeds, the versatile American quarter horse comes in almost any equine color. True white quarter horses result from homozygosity of the sabino 1 gene – meaning the horse inherits two copies, one from each parent.
While not common, this genetic combination can produce pink-skinned, white-coated American quarter horses.
Clydesdales are a draft horse breed originating in Scotland. Their flashy feathers and high-stepping movement displays their power and athleticism despite their large stature.
Though commonly bay, black, or brown, Clydesdales can also be white. This coloration likely stems from sabino genetics combined with selective breeding by enthusiasts of white Clydesdales.
The Boulonnais breed comes from northern France and is recognized for its stout yet elegant appearance. Boulonnais horses range from gray to near-white in color.
While not fully confirmed as genetically white, the Boulonnais’ light coloration arose from centuries of selective breeding by horse breeders in France seeking a beautiful “white marble” horse.
9. Tennessee Walking Horse
With its head-nodding gait, the Tennessee Walker is an athletic American breed known for its smooth ride. While rare, some Tennessee Walkers are born with a complete white coat and pink skin.
Both the sabino 1 gene and additional dilution genetics contribute to this breed’s ability to produce true white horses on occasion.
Mustangs are rugged feral horses in western North America. Descended from escaped Spanish horses, mustangs exhibit diverse coloring. The sabino 1 gene variant allows for white and true white mustangs to occur.
DNA testing can confirm if a white mustang has the sabino genetics associated with true white coloring versus gray or cremello dilutions resulting in white coats.
11. Orlov Trotter
Developed in Russia, the Orlov Trotter excels at harness racing. They range from gray to white, though the whites are rare. Selective breeding likely played a role in producing white specimens within the overall gray Orlov population.
While white Orlovs are uncommon, they display the elegance and athleticism characteristic of the breed when trotting at high speeds.
12. American White
Though rare today, the American White breed originated from selectively bred white stallions and mares in the 19th century. The resulting horses had true white characteristics and only occurred due to careful breeding.
American Whites almost went extinct but were preserved thanks to dedicated breeders. Horses from this line exhibit graceful movement alongside their distinctive white coat.
Challenges of Breeding White Horses
While beautiful, white horse breeds require special considerations when breeding.
One of the biggest challenges is the prevalence of lethal white syndrome. Certain dominant white genetics can be fatal when an offspring inherits two copies. Breeders must take care to avoid these pairings.
Additionally, true white horses with pink skin are prone to sunburn. Extra care must be taken to shelter them from intense sun exposure.
True white horses are also uncommon. Breeders wishing to develop white horse lines must carefully select breeding stock showing recessive or heterozygous genetics for white coats. It takes generations of planning to yield more white foals.
The difficulties of producing and caring for white horse breeds make these coats rare. Only dedicated breeders focused on furthering white horse bloodlines can successfully breed for this trait.
Preserving the Genetics of White Horse Breeds
Many horse breeds only occasionally produce white foals. Preserving and expanding white horse genetics requires meticulous breeding programs.
Breeders must carefully study pedigrees and coat histories to select optimal pairings. Increased understanding of equine genetics also helps pair horses with the right dominant or recessive genes.
Closing studbooks and allowing only certain lines to continue breeding also promotes desired characteristics, like white coats. Many white horse breeds have registries limiting what stallions can sire registered white foals.
Advancements in assisted reproduction, like artificial insemination and embryo transfers, aid selective breeding. Breeders can import semen or embryos to expand the gene pool of white horses.
Ongoing research provides new insights into genetics behind equine colors. This allows for more strategic breeding decisions when aiming to increase white horse numbers.
With proper breeding management, time, and effort, breeders can successfully grow scarce white horse genetics. Though challenging, preserving these lines ensures the continuation of beautiful white horse breeds.
The Allure of White Horse Breeds
White horse breeds spark the imagination and stand out aesthetically. For enthusiasts willing to take on the breeding challenges, nurturing white horse genetics is a labor of love.
Breeders must balance rarity with health risks associated with all-white characteristics. But when this feat is accomplished, the majestic white horse captures the hearts of all who see it.
From fairy tales to real-world farms, white horses represent an elusive beauty. Thanks to meticulous breeding programs, these special animals continue gracing pastures and show rings.
White horses evoke a sense of wonder and magnificence – traits sure to be appreciated for generations to come by breeders and admirers alike.