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The things we notice

Artists have a different way of looking at horse color than scientists, and that perspective can be useful.

A young, dark grey mare with dappling on her body and dense fleabites on her neck and face

Twenty-two years ago, I did my first presentation on horse color. I had been writing about the topic for over a decade but had not done any public speaking. Outside of the occasional magazine article, horse color was just a private pastime. However, the event team at Breyer Model Horses asked me if I would be willing to speak at the opening of their 2001 BreyerFest event.


I loved the idea of being able to share information with people in the equine collectibles community. There was only one catch. I was going to be sharing the stage with Dr. Phil Sponenberg. Today, Phil is one of the editors of my second book and the author of the forward. I am fortunate to consider him a friend who shares my odd obsession with horse color. But back then, he was a famous author who wrote the book that got me (and many others!) started in the first place. Making your first public speaking debut in a theater in front of a large audience is daunting enough, but doing it next to someone you have idolized is a tall order. I told myself that at least I could ask him questions. In my mind, I imagined all the things he must know.


A funny thing happened when it came time for audience questions. I was content to sit back and listen. What could I possibly add? Then, someone in the audience asked, “Can a grey horse have both dapples and fleabites?”


To my surprise, Dr. Sponenberg turned and said he thought I was the person to answer that one. It was such a mundane question. You could pose the question to just about any painting artist in the room and get an accurate answer. At the time, I assumed he was being kind and directing an “easy” question to his fellow speaker. What I know now is that Phil and I had two different perspectives on horse color. He is a scientist, and I am an artist. We notice different things. The fact that greys often develop fleabites before they lose all their dapples is the sort of thing an artist notices. 


 We notice things like the fact that the mare at the top of this post is a little unusual. She is still very early in the greying process and probably relatively young because she is so dark. However, she’s already developing a lot of fleabites. At the same time, she’s also pretty typical in where those fleabites are located. They are most prominent on her face, neck, and top of the shoulders. They are particularly dense in the space between her cheek and eye. That frequently happens when greys start to turn fleabitten.

This shows a close up of the face of the mare in the previous picture. It is duplicated to the right and the area under the eye is highlighted in yellow.
The area highlighted in yellow is one of the first places where fleabite can begin to develop, so they appear more numerous. Compare how dense they are in that area with the side of the cheek.

A close-up of the face of a white-grey mare with heavy fleabiting under the eye

You can see an even more pronounced concentration in that same area on this mare. She is further along in the greying process, turning from white-grey to fleabitten grey. (She is also in pasture condition, so the tan areas on her cheek are North Carolina clay stains and not part of her natural color. )

The face from the previous mare shown at a 3/4 frontal angle, with the contrast between the dark flecking around her eyes and her near-white forehead visible

Although the placement is pretty typical, the contrast between those areas and the rest of her coat is a bit unusual. That’s especially true when viewing her face from the front. It almost looks like she has a broad blaze, but that area is white-grey without fleabiting – yet!

The hunter mare below is another example of a dapple grey that has started to fleabite before turning fully white-grey. She also has the concentration of fleabites around her eye. In her case, it is particularly noticeable under the zygomatic arch (the bony structure behind the eye).

The face of a grey Hunter mare showing vivid dappling on the underside of her neck and dense fleabiting on her face

Another area that tends to develop fleabites early is the flank. Since the hindquarters are often the last area where greys retain color, this is often where it’s possible to see both dapples and fleabites.

The hindquarter of a bay horse turning dapple grey with fleabiting on the flanks

I suspect that’s also where artists are likely to combine the two features. The hair in that area changes direction, so adding a pattern of dark hairs there can be used to highlight that. When I answered that question all those years ago, I imagined all the artists in the audience thinking of a horse like this one.

The hindquarters of a dapple grey Hunter with fleabites on the flanks

What I didn’t imagine was how useful an artist’s perspective was when it came to horse color research. We notice different details. I love the science of horse color and spend a lot of time with my nose in the latest journal articles. I hope to share more about some of the newer discoveries in the field, but lately, I’ve been organizing the thousands of photos I have taken since that first presentation. They all tell stories about what I noticed when I took them, and I thought it would be fun to share some of those.


So, join me for the next few posts while I share how my artist’s eye sees horse color.


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