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Naming the things

January 7, 2020 0 Comments

While working on the next post about sabino patterns, I realized that this topic was probably worth expanding into a separate post. Several new dilutions have been formally identified in the last year, and two of the names – sunshine and snowdrop – have generated some commentary. They may sound fanciful, but they follow a longstanding tradition when it comes to horse color.

Talking about horse color is challenging because of the limitations of language. There are only so many words in the English language for spotted  – or in the case of dilutions, beige. What has been traditional with horses is that new and unique traits often carry the name of the horse first associated with them. We have Tetrarch and Bend Or spots, Gulastra plumes and Rosson tails. In my notes, I refer to odd markings like the one on the horse above – patches of appaloosa-like spotting seen on one side of the hip – as Poteka spotting, after the Arabian mare who was the first one I noticed.

bay champagne Tennessee Walking Horse

The champagne dilution takes its name from the Walking Horse stallion Champagne Look. The recently identified dilutions also take their names from specific horses. Those who participated on the old Yahoo group New Dilutions might remember Captain Sunshine, the horse behind the discovery of sunshine. With snowdrop, it was a Gypsy Horse of that name.

Phil Sponenberg once said something about color names that has stuck with me. He told me that you wanted a word that a horseman would not feel foolish calling out to identify a specific horse in the pasture. He makes a valid point. Saying, “Hey, catch that sunshine mare over there,” would not have been the best way to be taken seriously at the barns where I rode as a young person. One friend said to me that these sound like “Barbie Doll names.” I am certain she is not alone in that reaction.

But again, there are only so many available words. As the numbers of alleles – many producing phenotypes indistinguishable from existing ones – have increased, it seems all the more likely that the “over the fence” words used to talk about horse color are going to diverge from the words used by scientists. Anyone who has bitten their tongue when someone refers to an older grey as “that white horse” understands how that works. Someone asking you to retrieve a pale horse in a field probably does not care which of the almost half-dozen dilutions the horse carries.

But if your interest in horse color is academic, that does matter and you need some more specific words. In that context, some things are particularly useful.

  1. When keyword searches are used, there is enormous value in unique words. Even an unusual word in the context of horses or animal coloration can be helpful. Right now, if you want to know more about the snowdrop dilution, typing those two words into a search engine will pull up the paper on the discovery. You do not even need to add the word “horse.” This applies to databases and even my notes. If the word is unique, it is much easier to search for it.
  2. It is not always possible, but single words are better than phrases or compounds. Not all settings permit searching by phrase, which ties in with the first point. It is also just harder to write clearly and in detail when the color name is a phrase, especially when writing for readers who have no reason to expect that the words are a unit. The words I had been using for the pattern I will talk about in the next post, “flashy white,” are a perfect example of this.

Getting back to the mare at the top of this post, the image above is her other side. That asymmetry, where the marking dramatically skews off to one hip, is the trait that needed a name. I am collecting examples in the hopes of finding more like her, but I am pretty sure they are rare enough that no existing name is out there. It made sense to call it Poteka spotting.

But when it comes to the final group of sabino patterns, I did not have to come up with a name. The color already has one in South America. Unlike the phrase I had been using, it fits the above criteria, so I have borrowed it. That’s what I will talk about in the next post.

And finally, a special thank you should go out to Maggie Jenner-Bennett. We attended the Draft Horse Show at the North Carolina State Fair together, and I foolishly left without a spare camera battery. Rare colors are, as anyone can tell you, mystically attracted to researchers without functioning cameras. I am so grateful that she handed me hers so I could get these images!

By lkathman

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