The roan gene ("Rn") mixes white hairs evenly throughout the base coat of the main body. True roans usually have normally (non-roaned) colored faces and lower legs.

See for similar patterns.
(Normal head coloring may include stars, strips, snips, blazes, etc.)

Aidan, from Devils Garden HMA - a strawberry (red-based) roan

"Sage" a bay roan adopted by Pat Hyatt of Napa

Blue Velvet, a blue roan mare from Devils Garden adopted by Karen Floyd

Roan is not progressive -- it doesn't get lighter over the years, as grey does. Roan does, however, change seasonally - being very light, even white, at certain times and dark at others. 

Wilbur Mustang, in May *left) and January (right)
Suzi Kicker's Misty Bleu, showing seasonal changes in roan coloring

Bolero from the Hog Creek HMA in Oregon, adopted by Greg Schultz
Showing his summer sleekness; At this stage, blue roan appears pewter, and from a distance can be mistaken for grullo

A bay roan mustang in late winter woolies; At this stage, roans appear to be almost white

A blue/brown roan in mid-spring, showing lots of white

The Roan coloring may not be apparent in the foal coat, but appears with the first shedding. The roan pattern is stable throughout life.

True roan is caused by the "Rn" gene, which is dominant.
A horse must be a roan in order to have roan offspring. Roan does not "crop out" - at least one parent must be roan.

The Rn gene has long been believed to be lethal in the homozygous state, with all RnRn embryos being resorbed very early in the pregnancy (usually before the owner knew the mare had conceived). However, recent research at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of California, Davis, has proven this long-held theory to be incorrect.

Roan itself is not lethal. Several stallions have been identified that are homozygous for roan and have tested as such. It is not a test that is commercially available to the public, but it is possible to test for it based on a nearby gene (we don't know the gene for roan). Roan was only thought to be lethal because a paper was published in 1979 by Harold Hintz at Cornell that showed, statistically, that roan should be an embryonic lethal because of the ratios of roan-to-non-roan foals born to two roan parents. This turned out not to have a genetic basis, according to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory of the University of California, Davis.


RED ("Strawberry") ROAN

Strawberry Roan is the result of the dominant Roan ("Rn") gene modifying Red (sorrel or chestnut). Like all red-based horses, the points may be any shade of red, white, gold, silver, grey, or brown, even very dark brown - just not pure black.

BAY (formerly called "RED")

BAY ROAN (sometimes also called "Red Roan") results when a BAY base coat is modified by the ROAN gene.

Bay Roan from Blue Wing HMA, September, 2003

Bay roans have the black points and red/brown faces of "regular" roans, but additionally their bodies are colored by a mix of red and white hairs (and maybe black hairs, too, if other factors are present).

Many people call these "Red Roans" - I have used the term "Bay" because it is accurate genetically, and avoids confusion with Strawberry Roan, which can also be called "Red Roan."

Like all true roans, Bay Roans change coloring seasonally - being whiter in spring and early fall, and less obviously roaned in summer and winter. Except for this seasonal change, and except for the foal coat (which often "hides" the roaning - Roan often does not become apparent until the first foal coat has been shed) red roan is a stable color. An adult or elderly roan horse will be no more roaned than it was as a two-year-old.

BLUE (Black-based) ROAN

BLUE ROAN is the ROAN gene on a BLACK base. A true Blue Roan is fairly rare, and is a striking pattern - one of the most sought-after among Mustangs.

Blue Roan mustang - Liz Cohen photo

Blue Roan mustang

What True Roan is NOT:

The GRAYING Process

In its early stages, Gray can look very much like roan, and many young gray horses are incorrectly labeled as roans.

Roan horses may have some coat variations through the seasons, but Grays continue to produce more and more white hairs as they grow older. Grays also develop white hairs over their faces and lower legs.

This filly appears to be red roan, but if you look closely, you can see the early stages of greying...note light circles around eyes

The white hairs on the face are a giveaway that this "roan" yearling is actually in the early stages of graying

See GRAY for more about the Gray gene and the Graying process

Like the yearling at left, this 2-year-old (our Ruby) may appear to many to be a roan, but the roaning/graying on her face gives away that she is undergoing a graying process rather than being a roan.

Note that with the graying process, the face is "roaning" faster than the body. With true roan, the face is not roaned.

Gray is also progressive: over time, the horse continues to lighten, going through the classic dapple gray phase, and then finally, almost pure white.

Roan is a stable color throughout life, although it goes through seasonal variations, being "whitest" in springtime.


  • A Roan's face shows little or no roaning (light hairs mixed in). Horses undergoing GREYING often show grey first on the backs of their ears and the area around the eyes. The face is usually the whitest part of the body, and lightens quicker than the rest of the body.

    Face of a true Blue Roan Mustang

    Ruby's face is much whiter than the rest of her body at this stage.
  • Roan is a stable coloration throughout life, whereas Gray is progressive. The original birth color is gradually (or rapidly!) overtaken by grey, until the entire horse is grey (may retain black points) and will eventually fade to white. (The Varnish Appaloosa pattern, below, develops similarly - gradually smudging and blending another appaloosa pattern into an overall grey roan appearance, much like varnish being brushed over wet paint.)

Blue Roan Brabant Belgians at the Grass Valley Draft Horse Classic

Ruby. a gray mustang from Twin Peaks HMA
Note the black face on the roan (at left) and the light face on the gray (above)

Another pattern that looks similar to ROAN is VARNISH ROAN APPALOOSA. This pattern is caused by the Lp gene, and is unrelated to Roan.



Blue Roan mare with foal 
  • A Roan horse displays the full base color, with roaning added to the body coat. The "points" (mane, tail, and lower legs) and face have little or no roaning.

  • The Roan pattern may not be apparent in the foal coat, but is stable through life thereafter.

  • Roan changes seasonally (more white in the winter coat) but is otherwise stable throughout life.


Varnish Appaloosa
  • Varnish Roan usually has a whitish or grey body, with color mainly on the cheeks of the face, and around the knees.

  • The Varnish Appaloosa pattern is not stable. Much like the Grey gene, the horse is born another color (usually another appaloosa pattern), and the Varnish pattern gradually overtakes it. It is called "Varnish" becasue of the unique way that the colors begin to smudge and blend, much like taking a varnish-laden paint brush over a wet painting.

SABINO ROAN is also similar to both roan and gray, in that roaning can cover the entire body, including the face:


Sabino Roan is a stable pattern - it does not significantly lighten with age. Some sabino roans can be very difficult to distinguish from gray. With experience, one will develop an "eye" for the pattern.

With time, it will become obvious if the horse is a gray instead of a sabino, since gray is progressive.


Genetically, the roan gene can act on any of the base colors, and can occur in combination with any other color effect, including pinto, dun, buckskin, etc..

Roan on black is called Blue Roan; But from there it gets confusing - conventional terminology and various breed registries define the colors differently. Until recently, many color registries defined "Red Roan" as being what is genetically a Bay Roan, leaving "Strawberry Roan" for a red-based roan. Now

Since color terminology is not standardized, you can choose whichever terms you want. It is important to understand, however, that others may be using the terms differently.

It helps to understand the genetics involved.

This guy could easily be confused with a young gray. But there is something a little different. And over time, he swill stay the same, whereas a gray will continue to lighten over the years, until it is white.


The Roan coat usually develops "corning" over time. Wherever  the skin is scratched, the hair grows in as the base color, rather than with roaning, giving a splotched effect known as "corn" - so-called because its appearance is reminiscent of an ear of Indian corn.

Rabicano/Rubicano is often confused with true Roan. Rabicano is a genetic modifier that creates roaning that is usually limited to the underside, flanks, legs, and tail head areas. Rubicanos often have a 'coon tail' of white barring at the tail head and white hairs in the flanks. Rabicanos often look so similar to roans that they may simply be called "roan" although genetically, roan and rabicano are distinct and different from one another.


Strawberry Roan Sabino mustang at Palomino valley BLM Center

Cinnamon, a Strawberry Roan Quarter Horse owned by Kevin Allen

Strawberry roan mustang

Strawberry roan filly at Blue Wings HMA capture

The above two photos show the same horse during different seasons.
At left is his "winter look" and at right is his late summer "whiteness."

Strawberry roans at Palomino Valley BLM Center

"Tucker" A Shire horse (From Bay Area Equestrian Network Classified Ads Feb. 2002) was listed in the classifieds as a Strawberry Roan. So long as the points are not pure black, the horse is a Strawberry (red-based) Roan, not a Bay Roan. This one seems to be "riding the fence" - the mane has a pewter grey appearance, but the lower legs are quite black.

"Sage," a Bay Roan, and Pat Hyatt of CA

Bay roan in her springtime "white" phase

This baby from Blue Wing HMA is already obviously a roan. Other foals do not show their roan coloring until they have shed their foal coats

"Brown" Roan: This mustang is a roan on a seal brown
(black with tan) base

"Roan Ranger" a blue roan Mustang owned by Robin Merrill Payne


I have shown, above, the effect of Roan on the 3 "basic" colors, but any color of horse can also have Roan: Palominos, buckskins, pintos, duns, chocolate - a horse can carry any combination of color genes, including roan.



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