Appaloosa, Tobiano, Roan,
& The Overo Group (Frame, Sabino, Splash)

Genetics of White Patterns:

All patterns of white are created by genes that block the horse's normal color, just as a stencil or wax covering can prevent paint from sticking to a cloth or paper.

The KIT gene in horses is responsible for four known white patterns: roan, tobiano, sabino, and dominant white. Research is continuing, and there are many more forms of white and white patterning that may be linked to KITS.

Genes that control the colored parts of the horse and the genes that create the white patterns are not related and act independently of each other. Therefore a horse can, and often does, carry more than one spotting gene. The "Pintaloosa" is probably the most dramatic example, but less dramatic combinations of Tobiano and Overo also commonly occur.

A horse can have a red or black base. This base can be modified by ay of the other color genes, such as Roan or Champagne or Creme or Dun. This can also have an overlay of Tobiano or Overo or Sabino or whatever.

A FURTHER COMPLICATION: The KITS gene is located very close to the Extension gene on the chromosome, and tends to link with it. Extension determines whether red or black. Therefore, if, for example, a horse is a red tobiano, if the horse produces a tobiano foal, it is likely to be red. Ditto black.

EXAMPLE: This colt is a black-based horse with the dun dilution and possibly Creme and/or Agouti as well. The resulting color is partially blocked by Tobiano, which creates the white patterns and high white leg stockings.


Example 2: The Mustang colt at left displays many color genes: He is a red-base with the creme dilution, which makes him a palomino. He has the LP, or Appaloosa, genetics, plus pinto spotting, making him a palo-pinta-loosa!


(Technically, "Paint" refers to horses registered with the American Paint Horse Associaiton breed registry, and "pinto" refers to the color pattern. In common practice, however, the terms are used interchangeably for any horse with a spotted coat.)

There are several distinct pinto patterns:


> Sabino
> Splash

(not clearly either Overo or Tobiano)

Click one of these to explore a specific pattern:

The Overo Group:

Horse Colors Main Page l Frame Overo l Sabino l Splashed White l Tovero l How To Tell the Pintos Apart

Overo Lethal White Syndrome

Other Spotting Patterns:

Appaloosa l Tobiano l



Roan-like Variations

OR read on down the page

Pinto genes block the base color from expressing itself, leaving the hair white. Imagine a batik, in which certain areas of the cloth have a wax covering that prevents it from taking on color when dipped into a vat of dye. In the same way the pinto gene blocks a horse's normal base color from showing in certain areas, creating a spotted or mottled pattern.

Here's an excellent reference website: Coat Colors: The Genetics Behind the Hide

Paint/Pinto genetics

Paint/Pinto patterns were present among the original Spanish horses brought to America.

Click HERE for Dr. Philip Sponenberg's article about the Spanish Colonial Horses in America.

The Paint/Pinto patterns were very popular among Native American horsemen. Certain patterns, particularly "Medicine hat" Toveros, were considered to have special powers. Others were simply valued for their good looks.

"Indian Ponies" are attractive to modern romanticists, and today the loudly patterned horses are much in demand. But for many years, racism against the Indians trickled down into the horse world in the form of a prejudice against paints/ pintos that still exists today, although the American Paint Horse Association and others have done a lot of good work to overcome this.

Paint is a Breed Registry.
Pinto describes the coloration and is the correct term for Mustangs

(although many people prefer the term "paint" -  and "Pinto" can also refer to a registered Pinto, which is essentially a spotted Arabian)


  • Piebald: black and white

  • Skewbald: Any other color than black, with white 

These two terms are outdated and rarely used any more.

(Pendleton Blanket)

Why Most Mustangs Are Not Pintos:

This picture composite of Root Beer & Sparky may illustrate why Paints/Pintos are rare among wild horses, even though they are common among domestics. (Sparky likes to hide behind bushes and pretend we can't see him - a mountain lion would not be fooled!)

Pintos are among the rarest colors in Mustangs, comprising less than 5% of the overall population (and zero percent in many herds). Some of the best pinto-producing herds are the Southeastern Oregon, Northeast California, Northern Nevada, and Wyoming herds areas. South Steens (Oregon), High Rock (California-managed), Calico Mountains, Granite Range, Little Owyhee (Nevada), and McCollough Peaks (Wyoming) are known for their wildly spotted horses (as well as other colors, of course)

There are TWO major types of Paint/Pinto: Overo and Tobiano.


The "Overo" category includes at least three distinct color genes: Frame Overo, Sabino, & Splash, and the term is also used to describe any pattern that is not clearly Tobiano

Each of these patterns has its own gene. However, any individual horse may carry and exhibit traits from more than one of these genes. The patterns created by these genes can look much alike. For these reasons, they are often lumped together under the heading of "Overo." With Overo, the white is confined to the sides and underside of the horse. White does not cross the topline, except above the withers. (Exceptions: Medicine Hats, Tovero, & Maximum White Sabinos or Toveros)


Frame  Overo mare



For more about Tobiano, click here

  • White extends over the topline on the back and/or rump
  • Tail is tipped in the base color (black or red)
  • White patches are large, soft, rounded blobs

3. Other Pinto Types:

There are also variations and less common sub-types, including MAXIMUM WHITE, TOVERO and MEDICINE HAT:


A PURE WHITE horse, with normal skin coloring can be a MAXIMUM TOVERO. Such a horse may have no dark areas, or only a few very tiny ones, that may go undetected, because the white mask is so extensive.

Pure white foals born of overo mares may be either Maximum Whites, which are peerfectly normal, healthy animals, or, if both parents are Frame OVeros, the foal has a 25% chance of being born a Lethal White (homozygous Frame Overo is lethal). Maximum Whites and Lethal Whites look the same, but the first 72 hours of life will tell the tale: the normal, healthy Maximum White will be fine, but the Lethal White will sicken and die, due incurable abnormalities of the digestive tract. The moral of the story: Don't breed Frame to Frame! If in doubt (about whether or not a horse is Frame or not), get them tested!

Heather Doherty's medicine hat pinto
Tovero, Medicine Hat, Pintaloosa  & Maximum White Pintos

The endless variations of spots and splashes that occur in horses - and mustangs in particular - are a source of endless delight and discovery. They include the Pintos, the Appaloosa Complex, Splashed Whites, and Sabinos.

The Overo Group:

Horse Colors Main Page l Frame Overo l Sabino l Splashed White l Tovero l How To Tell the Pintos Apart

Overo Lethal White Syndrome

Other Spotting Patterns:

Appaloosa l Tobiano l


The Base Colors: Red  Black

Major Headings:

The Single Dominant Genes: Agouti | Appaloosa | Brindle | Dun | Grey | Pangare | Pintos Rabicano | Roans & Roaning | Silver | Sooty |

The Pinto Patterns: Tobiano | The Overo Complex: Frame | Sabino | Splash | Tovero

The Incomplete Dominant Genes: Champagne | Creme

The Recessive Genes: Red | Flaxen

Colors with multiple genetic bases: Blue | Brown | White | Roan-like Effects

Miscellaneous Color Issues: Lethal White | Palomino or Flaxen Chestnut? | How to tell the Overo Patterns Apart |


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