Horse Breed Series: Palomino

The palomino is unlike most other breeds of horse, in that it isn’t really a breed at all.  Instead, it’s a very specific colour brought about by a single so-called ‘dilution’ gene.  Genes of this sort act in conjunction with others in order to produce a lighter (or more diluted) coat colour.  In this case, the gene produces a ‘cream’ colour, which in conjunction with a red base coat produces the distinctive golden Palomino coat.

In this article, we’ll examine this variety of horse in greater detail, and see how it came to be, and where it might find use in the modern world.

Two palomino horses running on pasturage in autumn
Two palomino horses running on pasturage in autumn

History

Palomino colouring is a genetic attribute which can appear entirely by chance in a number of breeds, and so it’s reasonable to suppose that Palomino horses have been around for a very long time.  Thanks to their physical beauty and their rarity, Palominos have long been a favourite among the aristocracy.  They can be seen depicted in numerous paintings depicting Spanish royalty, who liked to display them as status symbols.

Marie-Isabella de Bourbon, a Spanish Infanta who lived during the early 19th century, owned a herd of more than a hundred Palomino horses.  They were kept as pets, and jealously guarded; only the chosen few were permitted to ride them.  Such was the prestige of the breed that commoners were entirely forbidden from riding them.  Isabella had several of her horses brought to the Spanish colonies in Mexico, as a gift to the New World.  From there they promptly spread northward into the American Wild West, where they were domesticated by grateful Native Americans, who would use them for hunting, warfare, and transport.

The Palomino breed was recognised long before the genetics which underpin its distinctive coat were well understood, and so it’s difficult to be sure of its precise origins.  As the 20th century arrived and horses became increasingly used for entertainment, the breed found a new calling.

Most famously, these horses were used in black-and-white westerns of the 1940s.  Foremost of these Hollywood animals was Trigger, a horse who starred alongside Roy Rodgers in a slew of films throughout the Second World War and beyond.  The animal was exceptionally well-behaved and easy to direct, which made making films with him easy.

Another famous Palomino came later in the form of Mister Ed, a sitcom which aired during the early 1960s.  Mister Ed was played initially by a Palomino named Bamboo Harvester, and featured a raft of celebrity appearances – including Mae West and Clint Eastwood.

Attributes

The defining characteristic of the Palomino breed, so far as it can be called a breed at all, is its coat.  Palominos are a distinctive yellow-gold colour.  Their manes and tails are a shade lighter, standing apart from the body.  Most palominos have dark skin and eyes – though some are fairer, and get darker as they age.

Of course, while all Palominos have a creamy-golden fur coat, not all horses so-coloured are palominos. For example, another ‘dilution’ variety of horse coat is the Champagne, which causes horses to have pink skin and eyes which change from blue to amber or green as the horse ages.  Similarly, many Chestnut breeds may appear very similar to the Palomino – but they lack the dilution gene which defines the palomino as such.

In Britain, the British Palomino Society set out their criteria for registration.  Horses should have the body coat colour of ‘a newly minted gold coin, or three shades lighter or darker’.  There are rules debarring certain sorts of white markings, but not those causes by non-genetic factors like branding or injury.   Both the mane and the tail should be white – or, at least 85% white.  Eyes should both be of the same colour – with dark brown, black and hazel being permitted.  Palominos should have dark skin – though a little bit of leeway is granted around the eyes, nose and mouth.

Similar restrictions are to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, where there are two different registries for palomino horses.  You might find that registries of this sort are open to horses which aren’t, strictly speaking, palomino.  Provided that a horse has the necessary physical attributes, they will be able to get themselves onto the register – even if they lack the necessary genetics.

Applications

Thanks to their distinctive colour scheme, Palominos stand out in horse shows.  They’re to be found wherever horses are put on display – and so will find use in parades, and in popular entertainment.

As breeding horses, Palominos are impractical.  This is because the Palomino is not a true horse breed; its distinctive colour comes from an incomplete gene.  This means that even if a Palomino is crossed with another palomino, the resulting foal only stands a fifty percent chance of being palomino, too.  It’s for this reason that the breed is so rare – and thus so highly prized among aristocrats throughout history.

Breed registration for cream dilutes like the Palomino is slightly complex, as the colour-breed label might include a wide variety of different breeds.  This sets the Palomino apart from other breeds which come with a unique colour, like the Friesian.

Since the Palomino can be represented by breeds of a variety of different sorts, prospective owners have the ability to choose on that most closely matches their needs.  Those wanting a hot-blooded racehorse can have one, while those wanting a cold-blooded cob can have one, too.  Palominos, then, are able to suit any application, from dressage to show-jumping – provided that you select the right breed.  By the same token, any breed-specific health problems for a palomino will be largely determined by factors other than those governing its colour.

Since Palominos are rarer than other colour breeds, and so highly sought-after, you might find it a struggle to secure one that matches your precise needs.  But for those willing to spend a little more time searching for the right horse – and a little more money securing it – a palomino will make an excellent addition to the stable.

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