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The Colour and Mark of Horses - Information from 1751

Author: Trish Haill

:Having recently been lent an original copy of the 'Treatise on the Diseases of Horses' written by William Gibson, Surgeon, in 1751, it has been interesting to compare horse lore then to now. This article looks at one of the early chapters on the colour and marks of horses. Some pictures from the book are reproduced at http://www.limebrook.com/1751horselore.html Beautifully written in expressive old English this book is a real pleasure to read.

We would still agree with Gibson today that 'so much of the beauty of a horse depends upon his being well marked and of a good colour' and also that 'we often meet with good horses that are very ill marked and of bad colours and sometimes very bad horses, that have almost all the beauty that colour and marks can give them'. Reading this chapter from three centuries ago it becomes obvious that then marks and colour were taken to determine the character of the horse, and that much store was put on good looks. It is obvious, for example, that a gentleman in 18th century England would never be seen on the type of coloured horse which is becoming popular today!

Bays, Gibson suggests, are 'perhaps so called from their resembling the colour of dried bay leaves'. In his opinion the bay is 'one of the best colours, and horses of all the different kinds of bays are commonly good, unless when accidents happen to spoil them while they are colts'.

Although Chestnut mares have a poor reputation in the 21st century, it is interesting that this treatise does not mention this, although he does say that 'when a chestnut horse happens to be bald or party or to have white legs...such horses are not very agreeable. Chestnuts, however, were preferred by most people to the sorrel, both 'in point of beauty and goodness'.

The brown horse is described as a colour not so beautiful as the bay or chestnut, and 'plain brown [horses] are esteemed more ordinary. Many of them are coarse, but strong and serviceable, fit for draught, for burden or for the wars'.

Gibson is impressed by black horses, finding them 'very beautiful, especially when they are of a jet shining black and well marked, and have not too much white'. Too much white, apparently, adds 'nothing to their goodness'. A little white, however, is good. A star or blaze, 'sometimes a white muzzle and one or more of the feet tipped with white always looks beautiful and lively, and is no diminution to the goodness of a horse, but most think an addition' although some 'form an opinion that horses with mark are generally stubborn and ill-conditioned'. He has however 'found many of the English black horses, especially of the largest breeds, not so hardy as the bays and the chestnuts etc. However, if they are black brown they are 'generally the strongest in constitution'.

Of greys he states; 'The greys are so diversified in colour, and so common and well known that it would be a needless curiosity to describe them particularly'. The dappled greys are 'reckoned the best and are founding most parts of the world.' Silver Grey is 'extremely beautiful', Iron grey has a 'gay appearance but are not accounted the most hardy', the light plain grey and pidgeon coloured grey soon change and turn white.

Of the roans Gibson notes that 'many of them turn out much better than they appear to be'. Many roans make 'good road horses'.

There are so many colours of horses that Gibson states would be 'no great use to describe', But 'sometimes horses turn out very finely spotted, some like leopards or tigers, some like deer, with black, red, yellow or other gay colours, and when these happen also to be comply in shape and appearance they are generally reserved as present for Princes or other great men' but 'others again as so disagreeably diversified in their colours, and in such a remarkable manner, that no Gentleman would care to be seen upon their backs, or even suffer his servants to make use of them wherefore such are usually condemned to the meanest drudgery, and no properties they can have, will be sufficient to recommend them to any other use.

As Gibson fails to describe coloured horses (piebald or skewbalds) one can assume these are those which no Gentleman would ever ride!



As to the markings on horses Gibson says that some have reckoned horses to be lucky or unlucky by the way in which they are marked, but in his modern times of 1751 'believe few persons in our times are so superstitious as to regard such things' He does follow this up by saying though that some people 'denote all the good or ill qualities or a horse form his marks'. He himself though thinks that a 'horse always looks the more beautiful for being well marked'.

The most common mark is a star, and an artificial star is often used when it doesn't occur naturally. Gibson describes marks: 'When the white descends pretty broad towards the nose it is called a blaze; when it descends into a smaller line it is called a snip; and when most of the horse's face is white he is then said to be bald. All these marks are beautiful when they are not to extreme, for a very large star is not reckoned so beautiful as one that is of moderate size, neither is that baldness that spreads over a horse's whole face and cheeks any ways becoming. As it gives him the looks of an ox, and such horses are often plain headed.'

Unfortunately Gibson has strong views about some horses: 'where a horse's pasterns, hoofs and all his four legs are white, especially when the white rises about the knees or hocks, it looks ugly, and a horse thus marked has too much of the pye-bald, which are seldom fit for gentlemen's use.

Of feathers he is more a fan, saying, 'wherever they happen to be, they are almost always signs of goodness, and some of them are exceeding beautiful'.



Reading this treatise from 1751 it is obvious that much store was put on what colour the horse was - certain horses would be condemned as war horses, or committed to a life of drudgery simply by their colour. Others, more happily marked (sorry, the 18th century language is addictive) end up living with Prince's. Although today we still value the look of a horse, we do not tend to group them so much by colour, and a good show jumper or dressage horse can be any colour. It is hard to imagine that a horse would fail to make the Olympics just because he was of a colour that no gentleman would want to be seen on!


About the author:
 Trish Haill is the Webmaster for Limebrook Farm Riding School and Livery Yard. This ever growing website is a great resource for riders and horse lovers everywhere. Check out the site at http://www.limebrook.com