How To Get a Horse’s Coat To Dapple

A dappled coat might be a sign of optimum equine health and nutrition, but the reality is more complicated. One equine nutritionist offers advice on bringing out the bloom in your horse’s coat.
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Your best chance of having dapples occur is to ensure all the horse’s dietary needs are met, his diet is balanced, and his coat is well-looked-after. | Photo: iStock

Q. Earlier this year I purchased a mare who had a dull coat and needed to gain weight. After several months she now looks amazing and has developed beautiful dapples. I’ve always heard dapples are related to diet, specifically fat. However, I don’t feed her that differently than my other horses, and they don’t have dapples. Why do some horses get dapples and some don’t?

A. Dapples on nongray horses are interesting. These irregular spots where the coat appears as a slightly different shade are seen on some horses but not others. Horses might only get them at certain times of the year. In the winter some horses have them, but when you clip them the dapples disappear. And as you have observed, dapples often appear to be condition-dependent. Traditionally, they are thought to be a sign of good health, so that would somewhat explain the condition connection.

While there does seem to be a nutritional component to horses having dapples, there is far more to it than that. As with all coat colors, dapples are, in part, controlled by genetics. Dapples result from variation in the patterns of red vs. black pigment along the hair shaft, rather than changes in pigmentation across the skin. This is why they disappear when you clip a dappled horse. Genes that respond to changes in nutrition control the deposition of black pigment along the length of the hair. Chestnut horses and those with colors in the chestnut family lack the ability to create eumelanin and, therefore, do not display strongly pigmented dapples. However, they may still have the variant responsible for dapples, which they can pass to their offspring.

You will need to work to create the optimal conditions for dapples to occur. This is where condition, management, and nutrition come in.

Your best chance of having dapples occur is to ensure all the horse’s dietary needs are met, his diet is balanced, and his coat is well-looked-after. Start with your forage. Feed the best-quality forage you can, and make sure your horse is getting enough. Stomach ulcers can wreak havoc on coat quality, so feeding plenty of forage to keep the digestive tract happy is an important component.

Make sure your horse’s diet is providing adequate quality protein and the amino acids lysine and methionine, which are the most limiting. Some old-time horse managers swear that protein is crucial for dapples and that it will put bloom on the coat. Fatty acids will help improve shine, too, so consider feeding a small amount of oil or high-fat seed meals such as flax. However, stay away from oils high in omega-6 fatty acids in favor of those high in omega-3 fatty acids, which might help reduce itching and improve skin quality.

Trace mineral levels should also meet requirements. For instance, zinc and copper can be low in forage-based diets or when commercial feeds are fed incorrectly. Both these trace minerals are needed for melanin production, so they directly impact coat color. Seek help from a nutrition professional if you are unsure whether the existing diet is meeting these needs.

Beyond diet, grooming practices are vitally important for coat quality. So often we are in a rush when we get to the barn and take barely a minute to flick our horse’s coat off before tacking up, but try spending at least 10 to 15 minutes grooming your horse at least several times a week, and you will see the benefits. Start with a rubber curry to stir up all the dirt, and then remove it with a stiff brush. In the summer, or if your horse is clipped, finish off with a soft brush. Going through these stages brings the natural oils to the coat’s surface, creating an amazing natural shine that no amount of bathing can produce. Clean your brushes frequently so you aren’t just putting the dirt back on the horse. Grooming this way has the added advantage of raising your heart rate and warming you up to ride.

If you take all these steps and still do not see dapples, don’t be disappointed. Genetics might not be in your favor, but your horse will still look stunning. And who doesn’t love a horse with a mirrorlike coat and show ring bloom?

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

8 Responses

  1. I also want to add that besides grooming and feed, it’s important to be sure your horse has its teeth floated so that food is ground up for proper digestion and to be sure to worm your horse.

  2. My liver chestnut horse had the most brilliant dapples-literally dazzling-one spring. I’ve never seen anything like it! I’ve owned him 8 years and while his management, diet, and grooming has been basically the same year to year, he’s never had those same dapples again.

  3. I have a “red” Belgian Draft, technically a sorrel (golden-red coat, flaxen mane and tail), which I would assume to be in the chestnut family of colors. He always has great dapples in the spring-summer months, so I was interested to read that generally chestnut family colors do not have dapples. Am I incorrect in thinking his color is in the chestnut family?

  4. Thanks, that’s a good idea many more horse people need to try more things. A lot of us are very biased.

  5. Fine-skinned horses such as thoroughbreds don’t usually tolerate the curry. Just use your body or soft brush and brush across the hair both ways to loosen molting hair and dust. Don’t ‘back-brush’ but just across enough to change the direction of the hair temporarily. Then brush hair the right way and finish with a soft towel or cloth (direction of hair). Be especially careful over bony areas such as hips and shoulders. The dandy brush is too hard for them as well. In fact, the curry brush is actually designed to run the dandy and body brushes over to flick the dust and stuff off, so that you are working with a fairly clean brush, It was never meant to be used on the horse!!

  6. Almost every one of my horses dislikes traditional grooming. I leave them untied (lead on the ground or over their backs) and use a plain rubber glove to “curry” and then follow with a soft rag sprayed with a little vinegar, water, and a bit of essential oil (lemon eucalyptus or lavender). They’re so much happier when they’re not restrained and can express themselves. If they walk off I can grab their lead, but usually I switch to a spot I know they crave rubbing (bellybutton, tail dock, underside of their neck). I spray their legs and feet, but use the cloth to apply the spray to the rest of their body. If they have a lot of dust or dirt in their coats I’ll use a fine-toothed flea comb, but always gauge their opinion about the tool and pressure I’m using. Give this a try? Good luck with your TB.

  7. What to do about a sensitive TB who hates a curry & only tolerates a soft brush? Excellent balanced diet

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