Ever heard of dapples?
For those of you unfamiliar, dapples are clusters of round circles or spots on a horse’s hair coat. Even those not acquainted with horses may have heard the term “dapple gray.” Gray horses don’t have a complete monopoly on dapples though. For example, my bay and white horse named Bear sports a few dapples every year too.
Dapples are a repeating pattern of slightly darker and lighter hair in small circles. Dappling is most common on grey horses but may occur with any color. Dappling is not permanent but may vary in any particular individual with season, nutritional status, or physical condition. For this reason, dapples are not generally recorded for identification.From https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/nvap/NVAP-Reference-Guide/Animal-Identification/Equine-Identification under the title “Markings.”
When I was growing up, I read that seeing dapples on horses was a sign of equine good health. The idea I absorbed was that the horses sporting dapples were especially well cared for.
That was all well and good, I suppose. But it did beg some questions. What about all those horses out there that didn’t have dapples on their coat? Were those horses managed poorly or horses whose health was compromised? Back then, I never found a good answer.
This memory popped into my head as I was observing my present-day horses, Bear and Shiloh, in their paddock earlier this month. Now that both horses have shed out their Winter coats, they are slick and glossy. I can see Bear’s shiny coat sporting dapples across both sides of his bum. Dapples that I can’t see on his Winter coat. But on Shiloh? There is not a dapple to be found on him at any time during the year.
Based on the information I had about dapples growing up, it would seem odd that Bear has dapples while Shiloh does not. Bear is 26 years old and several years into a diagnosis of cushings disease. Not a horse I would consider in the peak of good health. Shiloh is six years younger with no chronic health diagnosis. Shouldn’t Shiloh be the one showing dapples?
Fast-forward a few decades since I first learned about dapples. Scientists now believe that dapples in horses have a genetic component. Some horses have the genetics to dapple while other’s don’t. While management can help bring out dapples in a horse genetically inclined to dapple, no type of feed/grooming/conditioning will bring out dapples in a horse that doesn’t have those genes. It would seem that Bear has the genetics to dapple while Shiloh probably does not.
Interestingly, even in a horse with the genetics to dapple, those horses may not dapple without the right combination of adequate diet and grooming. And even those horses may only dapple seasonally. So while dapples CAN be a sign of good health, the absence of dapples does not equal poor health. That is good news for Shiloh.
Bear is the bay and white gelding shown in the photo above. Bear’s dapples on his rump have proven hard difficult for me to photograph, but hopefully you can see them enough to distinguish him from Shiloh (shown below) without the dapples.
What do I do that might help bring out Bear’s genetic tendency towards dapples? I’m not exactly sure.
Bear is retired from riding, so he receives no formal exercise, but he is turned out 24/7 and moves around quite a bit. I groom him almost daily from Spring though Fall. He is fed grass hay with a touch of separate alfalfa hay mixed in, a ration balancer and a variety of treats (mostly low carb/low sugar). He also gets some daily access to pasture, mostly with a grazing muzzle. He is dewormed according to the results of yearly/bi-yearly fecal egg counts. He is vetted every Spring, including teeth floating when needed.
Really, Bear receives pretty standard care. Would he dapple even if I managed his care differently? Is there a way I could bring out even more dapples? Hard to say.
Apparently, I am not the only one that still has questions left unanswered about dappling. Scientists are still learning more about dapples and don’t seem to have all the answers yet either. Questions remain about how/where/when they are expressed in individual horses.
A few interesting resources I found that discuss dapples are an article from Thehorse.com website, another article from Horse Illustrated at and an “Ask The Vet” YouTube video sponsored by Smartpak. All reputable resources that helped me shed some light on this topic. Here are the links
While I know from past experience that Bear’s dapples will fade as the Summer continues, I enjoy watching them appear each year. And I still think Shiloh looks very attractive even without a bloom of dapples on his coat. Really, there is not much more beautiful in nature than a glossy horse. Dapples or no dapples. I love to watch them all shine.