A visual guide to equine colors and patterns
Black appaloosa with color shifting (negative for known dilution genes)
Close-up of the lower legs of the appaloosa mare shown to the left
Silver dilutes the black pigment on the body of the horse to a silvery chocolate color, and turns the mane and tail flaxen. This means that black horses show the effect most strongly. Bay horses have their black legs diluted and flaxen mane and tail, but their red body remains unchanged. Because they do not have black hair to dilute, chestnut horses that have the silver dilution do not show the effect. Because chestnuts with the silver dilution can have self-colored manes and tails, it does not appear that silver alters their manes and tails to flaxen.
Silver-diluted black can vary in color from a pale taupe to a deep chocolate that approaches black. Seasonal changes are common, with winter coats tending to be paler. As they age, the flaxen manes and tails tend to darken, starting at the roots. Black silvers sometimes show dappling. This is especially vivid when the horse is clipped. Paler silvers sometimes have a dark face mask similar to that seen on dun horses.
When combined with cream, silver-diluted black pigment tends to lose its cool, silvery tones and look more like milk chocolate. Black silvers with cream, sometimes called silver smokies, often lack the contrast in their manes and tails seen in ordinary black silvers.
Silver smoky (black silver cream) - notice the warmer tone compared to the two horses above (Positively Charmed, purebred Morgan)
A clipped black silver showing vivid dappling with longer coat is visible at the base of the tail (Miniature Horse)
Silver can be difficult to identify reliably without genetic testing. Darker silvers, liver chestnuts and sooty palominos can all look very similar. The difference in leg color on clear bay silvers can be subtle, especially in winter, leading them to be misidentified as chestnut. Sooty chestnuts where the dark hairs are concentrated on the legs can be mistaken for bay silvers. Some wild bays have very pale, silvery points and some otherwise ordinary bays have flaxen manes and tails. Black silvers and chestnut-based mushrooms also look very similar.
As silvers age, their manes and tails tend to darken (bay silver Rocky Mountain Horse)
Black silver in pale winter coat, with a face mask (Miniature Horse)
Wild bay horse with silvery points (Paint Horse)
Legs of the horse to the left
Silver is dominant, so at least one parent must be silver in order for the foal to be silver. However, because silver does not alter the appearance of red pigment, a chestnut horse can carry the gene without showing it. This can make it seem that the color skips a generation. The gene is not lethal, so homozygous silvers can be found.
Silver is caused by a mutation to the PMEL17 gene, also known as SILV. Commercial tests to identify silver horses are available. Research on ancient remains suggest that the mutation dates back to at least to the Iron Age.
The mutation for silver is associated with Multiple Congenital Ocular Anomalies (MCOA), formerly known as Anterior Segment Dysgenesis (ASD). Homozygous silvers are believed to be at higher risk for these eye defects.
Silver dilution and eye defects
Discusses a study of silver Icelandics and merle in dogs (Feb 2012)
The limits of visual identification
Flaxen liver chestnut in the Black Forest Horse
Explanation of epistasis and chestnut carriers of silver
Images of an aged buckskin silver
A look at the family of American Shetlands where silver was originally believed to have originated
Point color and countershading on bay silvers
How the manes and tails change with age
A missense mutation in PMEL17 is associated with the Silver coat color in the horse.
Two SNPs in the SILV gene are associated with silver coat colour in ponies
On silver dapple colour in Estonian Native horse breed
Silver dapple, a unique color variety in Shetland Ponies
One of the earliest papers on the color (1953) - incorrectly describes it as having originated in the Shetland Pony
Multiple congenital ocular anomalies in Icelandic horses
Multiple congenital ocular anomalies syndrome in a family of Shetland and Deutsches Classic ponies in Belgium
Phenotypic description of multiple congenital ocular anomalies in Comtois horses
There are four breeds where silver is common: American Shetlands, American Miniatures, Rocky Mountain Horses and Comtois.
Silver is found more rarely across a wide range of breeds. Among the American breeds it is found in the Morgan, Tennessee Walking Horse, Missouri Foxtrotter, Saddlebred, Quarter Horse, Banker Ponies and the Mountain Pleasure breeds. Among the British native breeds it is found in Welsh Mountain Ponies, Highland Ponies, Gypsy Horses and the Shetland Pony. Other breeds include the Australian Ponies, Australian Stock Horses, Dutch Warmbloods, Dutch Harness Horses, Finnhorses, German Classic Ponies, Icelandics, Nordlands, and Estonian Natives.
The traditional name for the color in the United States is silver dapple. The most common way to speak about silver today is to add it to the color it modifies, such as black silver, bay silver or buckskin silver. In Rocky Mountain horses, silver is traditionally called chocolate. In Australia, silver is called taffy.
The silver mutation dilutes black areas of the body to a cool chocolate color, and turns manes and tails flaxen. It does not alter red pigment, so chestnut horses effectively hide silver. Liver chestnut, sooty palomino and wild bay can mimic forms of silver. The mutation responsible for the color is associated with defects in the eyes.
Here are links to some examples of color shifting in various colors and breeds. Be aware that links to individual horses can and do change. If a link no longer works, try searching on the name and breed.
Ava Minted Design a grulla mare who is one of the most dramatic cases of shifting
Elegant Design half-sister to the mare above, with a more typical form of color shifting
RHR MityMistic Image a good example of color shifting on the points of a bay
Andrews Black Velvet black mare shifted to a pale pewter
Pegasus Vom Niehaus-hof (black fewspot)
Majestic Don Giovanni (fewspot)
Mönchshof's Cinderella (black spotted blanket)
Nørgaards Leonardo (younger) note the tone of the legs compared to the body
Nørgaards Leonardo (older) showing a shift to a more overall bronze coat
Color shifting in Sabino1 horses
JFK - Tennessee Walking Horse stallion registered as chestnut, but produced bay and black foals from chestnut mares
More of JFK - these pictures show him with a cooler, more pewter color
Jackie Os My Sister - registered as chestnut, daughter of JFK
CMs Travelin' Texas Outlaw - black sabino Foxtrotter (also a really good example of how minimally heterozygous Sabino1 can present)
Have a link for a silver horse with good-quality photos that you would like to share? Just click on the chat button at the lower left of the screen.