Buckskin Horse

  • COAT COLOR: Usually gold, but can range from cream to deep bronze
  • MANE AND TAIL: Black
  • SKIN: Dark
  • MARKINGS: Legs black from knees and hocks to ground; rarely, a dorsal stripe
  • RELATED COLORS: Dun

Buckskin is a color, not a particular breed of horse. A perfect Buckskin is the color of tanned deer hide, although acceptable shades range from almost cream to deep bronze. All Buckskins have a black mane and tail and black legs from the knees and the hocks to the ground; most true Buckskins do not have a dorsal stripe. This coloring is frequently found in Quarter Horses, Miniature Horses, and Spanish Mustangs, among others.

Splitting Hairs

People often use the term dun as a synonym for buckskin, but it is actually a different color. At first glance, dun coloring appears to be similar to Buckskin, but if you look closely, a dun isn’t as light and clear in color as a perfect Buckskin. You might think that this is a case of splitting hairs, and it is.

Dr. Ben K. Green, a Texas veterinarian who spent his life with horses, became interested in the differences among coat colors. Examining horses’ hairs under a high-powered microscope, he discovered that although the shaft of each hair is clear, inside the shaft tiny globules of pigment are arranged in particular patterns. The different patterns of pigment refract different amounts of light, causing us to see a particular coat color. Green’s 1974 book, The Color of Horses, includes diagrams of the arrangement of the pigment within the hair shafts, as well as remarkably beautiful and accurate illustrations of solid-colored horses.

According to Green, dun hairs have a peculiarly dense pigment arrangement at the tip of the shaft, but the shaft behind the tip is uniformly pigmented along one side. When a dun horse turns his neck, the darkly pigmented tips of the hairs come together, giving a characteristic smuttiness to the coat color, where in horses of other colors you would observe a sheen. Buckskin hairs have no concentration of pigment at the tip end of the hair, so the color is clearer, with no dark overcast.

The Dun Factor

Another phrase commonly used in reference to Buckskins and duns is dun factor. This gene contributes the darker points: the dorsal stripe, the shoulder stripes, and the zebra stripes sometimes found on the legs of dun-factor horses and especially those in the wild. The dun factor may also occur in colors other than buckskin: there are red duns of various shades and even some bays that show the dun factor.

According to the International Buckskin Horse Association (IBHA), “The red dun will vary in shades of red, in the range of peach to copper to rich red. In all shades the accompanying points will be darker red or chestnut and be in contrast to a lighter body color. Red dun must have a definite dorsal stripe. The dorsal stripe will usually be dark red and predominant. Leg barring and shoulder stripes are common.”

The dun factor is also associated with the color grulla (pronounced GREW-ya) or grullo, a soft mouse or dove color. The IBHA defines grulla as a body color that may be mouse, blue, dove, or slate with dark sepia to black points. Grulla has no white hairs mixed in the body hairs. These horses have dorsal and shoulder stripes and may have leg barring. Genetically, grulla is a different color from gray.

The clear color, black mane and tail, and black legs make a stunning combination on this Buckskin. Most do not have a dorsal stripe.

The Original Horse Color?

Dun and buckskin, seen often in Quarter Horses and Mustangs, seem to be adaptive colors for both wild and domestic horses. Bonnie Hendricks, in The International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, points out that most dun-factor horses in the United States are descended from the Conquistadores’ horses. She believes the color traces back to some very ancient types of dun horses, such as the Przewalski Horse and the now extinct but re-created Tarpan. The ancient Sorraia Horses of Portugal that accompanied the Spanish explorers to the Americas also exhibited buckskin and dun coloring. Buckskin and dun were the only coat colors found in the long-isolated mustangs discovered in the Kiger Mountains in eastern Oregon in the 1970s.

Are Buckskins Better?

The lore about Buckskin horses holds that they have tremendous endurance and extremely hard, durable feet. Interestingly, this notion pervades many of the ranching areas of the United States, as well as in other countries where this color is common. Both Buckskin and dun horses usually have black feet, which many horsemen believe contributes to their hardiness of foot.

A Buckskin can be any shade from cream to a very dark gold, almost brown. The ideal shade is that of a tanned deer hide.

Green, however, points out that the Buckskin/dun color occurs primarily in indigenous-type horses such as Mustangs but virtually never in Thoroughbreds. After a lifetime of riding ranch horses of various colors, types, and breeds, he believes that ranch horses’ reputation for endurance has more to do with the type of horses being ridden than the color. Native-bred stock types are well suited to heavy work and rarely wear themselves out, whereas hotter-blooded Thoroughbreds often worry themselves into exhaustion before the day is done.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

The International Buckskin Horse Association registers and promotes horses of any breed that are buckskin, dun, red dun, and grulla. Many registered Buckskin horses are also registered with other breed registries. According to the association (incorporated in 1971):

  • About 22,000 horses are currently registered worldwide.
  • There are 900 to 1,000 new registrations per year, not limited to foals.
  • In the United States, the Midwest shows a strong interest in buckskins, but they are found all over the country.

Whether or not the color is truly associated with hardiness and exceptional endurance remains unproved, but Buckskin and dun cover a particularly beautiful range of colors that can certainly be appreciated on their own merits.

The Buckskin Horse Association also registers grullas.