This post first appeared on November 2, 2011
I have one last variety of roaning to share. The mare in these photos is a Quarter Horse, and is what is often called a frosty roan. Like true, dark-headed roans, frosty roans have white hairs mixed in a dark coat, but unlike the true roan the hair is not evenly distributed. Instead it tends to concentrate more heavily on the topline, including the mane and tail. On a true roan, the mane and tail remain dark.
There are also concentrations of white hairs where the bones are more prominent. It’s hard to see because of the shadows cast by her saddle, but notice the pale area over her elbow. This can be seen on her hocks, too.
She also has white hairs along her nasal bones. (I suspect the small white patch on the right side is a marking, and not part of her roaning.)
In this way, frosty roans display the opposite pattern of white hairs than a varnish roan, which tends to retain color across the bony ridges. Here is a varnish face with dark nasal bones and roaning on the rest of the face.
Varnish roans typically have paler hindquarters, but the other areas where a frosty would be pale, a varnish tends to be darker. Here is the body of a varnish roan, showing how the jaw, elbows and the hocks are darker.
There has been speculation that the gene that causes frosty roaning, paired with true roan, may be responsible for the very pale manes and tails on some of the European draft horses. Among those breeds, black, brown and bay roans often have markedly silver manes and tails. These are often more dramatic than the ones seen in ordinary frosty roans like the Quarter Horse above. That may be because the two genes interact, or it may be that the two are similar, but genetically unrelated. (The Brabant pictured comes from Wikipedia.)
It is not unusual for visually similar colors, like roan and frosty roan, to end up combined in a population. When breeders find a given color appealing, there is often a bias towards selecting horses that have that color – or something that looks a lot like it. That is how breeders of “golden” Saddlebreds ended up with both champagne and palomino horses in their breeding programs. Having two (or more) different genes that produce similar effects can also increase the chance that foals have the desired color, because each gene is a separate chance to get the desired look. Unfortunately for those interested in horse color research, it can also make sorting out the underlying causes a lot harder.