2017-10-07 / Columnists

HORSE TALES

Roan Colored Horses on Mackinac

As the leaves have turned color on Mackinac, my eye turns to the muted shades that make up the colorings of roan horses. The term roan comes from the Celts. According to my 1905 Webster’s “Handy Horse Dictionary,” roan means “having a bay or dark color with spots of gray or white, or of a coloring having a decided shade of red.” And it means just that, although the Celtic term refers to a muted reddish color. We think of the basic definition of a roan horse as one that has white hairs interspersed in its basic color coat. To me, a roan horse always has looked like it was frosted. One of our cocker spaniels is dark chocolate and white, but patches of his coat have that pearly look of white mingling with darker hairs. In dog books, they refer to it as “merle.” One can find roan coloring not only in dogs, but also in cattle, swine, and rabbits.

Roan is a color, not a breed, although some breeds produce more horses with this frosted coat. This silvery effect will not lighten with age, and, in fact, older roan horses often darken. If they have scars on their coat, those scars also will turn a dark shade. This is opposite of most other colors of horses’ coats, on which scars become infused with white hairs. Look closely for a roan.


Manuel Olguin, a Mackinac Island street sweeper, with a strawberry roan. Note the solid color on the head and frosted coat. Manuel Olguin, a Mackinac Island street sweeper, with a strawberry roan. Note the solid color on the head and frosted coat. In summer, it’s sometimes hard to tell if a horse is a roan, because most horses’ coats lighten from the sun. Even in the summer, however, there seems to be a glimmering sheen to a roan horse. In some cases, the head of the horse and/or its legs will retain a solid color. The same can hold true for the horse’s mane and tail. Other roans have light hairs infused throughout.

In the United States, there is a national color registry for roan horses. Breeds that produce the most roans are the American Quarter Horse, the American Appaloosa, the American Mustang, and Tennessee Walkers. A breed from South America that produces many roans is the Paso Finos. The Spanish term “sabino roan” means pale red. Many horses that are considered sabino have red in their coats, with white and reddish hairs in patches. This color is not limited to horses of the Americas. One can find roan coloring in several pony breeds in Europe: the Shetland pony of the Shetland Isles, the Connemara from Ireland, the New Forest in England, and some Icelandic ponies.

What I have found interesting is that several of the rental riding horses from Jack’s Livery Stable and Cindy’s Riding Stable were roans. One was a gray roan called Molina. There are working carriage, taxi, and dray horses that are roans. There were nine this year working for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours: Ice, Doug, Bart, Kenny, Cody, Bud, Pete, Talbots, and Jezebel. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours keep track of their stock not only by name and sex, but color, which I find interesting and helpful in identification. At Gough’s Livery, Reba and Rusty make up a roan carriage team.

There is a large draft horse breed that comes from France called the Ardennais. This breed, thought to have been around since Roman times, could be found in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, where it still is prevalent. These are heavy animals, but calm and tolerant. Many of these horses are roan. In fact, a black-coated Ardennais is not admitted to the breed’s studbook. The breed has been crossed with Belgian horses, as well as with Percherons, and I find it plausible that some roan drafts we have here could be linked genetically to the Ardennais of Europe.

A true roan will be that color at birth. In roan variants, there is the chance the horse will be born with a “coon tail.” This is a tail that it is heavily infused with white hairs at the base. In this case, the tail may change color and become lighter as the horse ages.

The owner of a roan based in America can pay to be a member of the American Roan Horse Association. If you are interested in learning more about these unique colors in horses, I suggest you inquire.

Folk tales suggest that if you come across a roan horse, you will have good luck, and if you own one, it will be your lucky charm. Another folk tale says if you own a roan, your fate will change. That sounds like a bit of blarney, but you never know.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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