Although commonly associated with splashed white patterns, it is not unusual to find blue eyes on dominant white horses, too.
The blog here continues to be somewhat silent while I work on the next book, “Equine Tapestry – An Introduction to Colors and Patterns“. What began as a reissue of the front portion of Volume I, Draft and Coaching Breeds in color has (predictably) taken on a life of its own. The original text touched on the as-yet-unidentified pinto patterns, with an attempt to classify the different categories of sabino-like patterns visually. Since that time, quite a few more pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place, and that has lead me to do a major overhaul on that material.
One of the things that became clear to me with this new information was that the way I personally organize my files was leading to blind spots in my understanding. I have mentioned before that a huge part of my research involves massive notebooks with images and pedigrees. Because I am a visual learner, sorting things this way helps me make connections that I might otherwise miss.
Sorting by breed or color
I have organized information in notebook pages like these for more than 20 years. Soon after I began, I started sorting the information by breed. Because so much of my interest centered around which colors were present in which breeding population, this made sense. What I began to suspect, working on the new book, was that I needed to rearrange some of my notes by color groups, rather than by breed.
The previous structure was great for seeing how some of the louder sabino patterning arose in the Arabian breed. Seeing how that worked convinced me that the louder horses were some kind of new mutation, and not just a more extensive expression of the existing “flashy white” in some lines. Laid out in a breed-centered notebook, it was clear how these louder horses – horses like Rhocky Rhoad – might come from flashy families (like Khemosabi), but their (numerous) relatives did not generally look unusual, while their own descendants most certainly did.
But this same structure made it harder to make connections about the colors themselves. The sheer volume of information – I have thousands of horses on file, and many times that number waiting to be included – made those connections more dependent on my working memory. Writing more has meant less time for musing, and with it the chance that I would make those mental jumps. When recent papers made it clear that my hunch about horses like Rhocky Rhoad were correct, I decide it was time to set up a parallel set of notebooks for the pinto pattern categories, starting with the W-series (W1-W20). I was hoping this would give me better insight into how the patterns within that group – the group previously called “dominant white” – worked. With luck, I might stumble upon the best way to present this very varied, and not-entirely-helpfully-named group in the new book.
White mutations and blue eyes
I now have all twenty of the known W mutations, along with images of every known or suspected carrier, in a single notebook. The first thing that jumped out at me was something that has been a bit of a hobby horse for me for some time now. That was how many of these lines involved blue eyes. Of the twenty families, six have blue-eyed individuals. In some cases, like the W5 family member Sato (above), just have a blue segment. Others have a full blue eye, or even two blue eyes, thought that last is actually pretty rare.
This is not surprising to anyone who has looked at historical records of white-born horses. Blue eyes are not infrequently mentioned. They are mentioned in connection with some of the old European studs that previously bred white-born horses. Early researchers also comment on their occasional presence. Nowadays, a search on the internet will turn up any number of commenters that will tell you that this “obviously” means the horses carry a splash pattern. You can even find those who will assert that no KIT mutation ever produces blue eyes in a mammal.
That was part of why I included the image of the panda German Shepherd a while back. She has a newly-identified KIT mutation, and she most certainly has blue eyes.
KIT and MITF mutations
Interestingly enough, most white patterning in dogs has proven to be caused by mutations to MITF – not KIT. In horses, MITF is the gene associated with splash patterning – and with blue eyes. For those familiar with dog coloring, the “extreme piebald” found in many sporting breeds, the “color-headed white” pattern in Collies and Shelties, and many forms of “Irish Spotting” have all been mapped to MITF. None of these patterns is associated with blue eyes in dogs. There is a MITF mutation in dogs – the one that produces white in Boxers – that produces blue eyes on rare occasions, to this is not an absolute, but generally speaking these MITF mutations are not associated with blue eyes.
The common theory in horses is that these W-series horses must have a splash mutation as well. And they may. Certainly there are far more mutations for white patterning than previous expected. I have long thought that the numbers of blue eyes on the dominant whites, particularly among the founder horses (ie., the horse that carried the initial mutation) were just too high for them all to happen to have a splash mutation as well. I did not have an exact number, though – just a sense that it was high. But the new sort gave me a number – six of twenty. That’s a lot, especially with breeds where there is no evidence of the presence of the one splash pattern (classic splash, SW1) known to remain cryptic in its heterozygous state. The other “new” splashes are dominant mutations, and a good bit more obvious in terms of phenotype.
Khemosabi and blue eyes
What is interesting is that the one horse that is often asserted by online commenters to “surely be a splash” is the well-known Arabian stallion Khemosabi. This is based on the fact that he has multiple blue-eyed descendants. What became clear as I resorted these records was that yes, he does have a number of blue-eyed descendants. However, all those in my files are also members of the two W-series mutations that occurred in his line. One would expect, if Khemosabi carried a splash mutation (at least, as we currently understand the pattern), it would appear in more than two lines. He did, after all, sire over 1,250 foals. Finding it in two lines, which also just happen to be those that have formally identified white spotting mutations, seems to suggest that the blue eyes are part of the pattern and not some additional inherited trait.
There are caveats to this, of course. Blue eyes are notoriously underreported. When I began to suspect that the louder sabino expressions in Arabians were new mutations, I printed out the markings files for the families where they occurred. So in my files are the marking diagrams for all the first generation Khemosabi descendants. It is quite possible that there are horses in that group with blue eyes that were not part of the registration records. Blue eyes in Arabians are still considered a serious fault, so there is some incentive to overlook it when filing a description, especially for an eye that is not completely blue. (I am always looking for images and records of blue eyes in Arabians, if anyone has them, by the way!) I cannot also be sure that some of the other lines – the fourteen that are not included as having blue eyes – might not also have blue. In many cases, eye color is not mentioned at all, and there I have defaulted to the assumption that the eyes were dark. That is not the same as knowing the eyes are dark, though.
My next task is to assemble the even larger group of suspected dominant white horses into one notebook. When that task is complete, I should be able to do another post about the status of the blue eyes in that group as well. Well, that and get a little closer to a finished book!