This is one of several short articles about horsey folklore that I sold to The Chronicle of the Horse in the early 1990s. I’m going to re-publish them in a free ebook later this year; watch for it at my Freebies page.
Black Horse, White Horse
One white foot, keep him not a day,
Two white feet, send him far away.
Three white feet, sell him to a friend,
Four white feet, keep him to the end.
One white foot, buy him,
Two white feet, try him,
Three white feet, deny him.
Four white feet and white on his nose,
Whack him in the head and feed him to the crows.
Horsey folks have voiced opinions about how the colors effect horses’ dispositions since humankind domesticated the horse.
Superstition? Mostly. Yet D. Phillip Sponenberg, whose works, Equine Color Genetics and Horse Color, are the best in their field, says, “A small amount of European research is beginning to point out that horses of certain colors do tend to react somewhat predictably to certain situations, and that reactions vary from color to color”.
So: fact or fiction? You decide.
Bays are said to be uncomplicated and unassuming, durable and average. Chestnuts are higher strung and more reactive than bays. Blacks, drowsy, steady and ready to please. Palominos? Buckskins? Flashy but thin-skinned. Duns are tough, durable, dependable, and steady. Greys are docile and easy to train. Roans are hardy and hard workers. Creams, though, are sickly and weak; pink skin is less desirable than dark pigmented skin, amber or blue eyes less visually acute. And whatever their color, darker horses are livelier and healthier than those having pale, washed-out coats.
Though paints and pintos are popular today, it was once commonly accepted that pinto markings denoted scrub ancestry, though pintos were always prized by the Roma (Gypsies) and some Native American tribes. In The Complete Horseman: discovering the Surest Marks of the Beauty, Goodness, Faults, and Imperfections of Horses (1696), the Sieur de Solleysall, equerry to the king of France, wrote of pintos, “…the phlegme which is betoken by the White Hair, doth too much predomine, and make them weaker than otherwise they would be”.
One of the Sieur’s near contemporaries, seventeenth century Spanish horse authority Don Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, wrote in The Defense and Discourse of the Western Conquests (1603) that: “Pintos are showy but subject to disease…The bay is a natural and perfect color for a horse…a few white hairs above the tail are a sure sign the horse will be swift and strong, and have a good mouth…The cream colored horse with black points is handsome but seldom fast…The dark chestnut is swift and strong but choleric and has a bad mouth…The black is handsome and fast, he has a bad mouth, is choleric and short sighted, jumpy and treacherous”.
Yet, “Fortunate is the one who owns a coal black horse with no white upon him”, according to an old Spanish saying dating from that same era. Everyone has an opinion, it seems.
For two thousand years the Turkmen horsemen of Turkmenistan have cherished akail-colored Akhal-Tekes (greys and duns with white manes and tails), though their favorite color is mele: dun with a black mane and tail. Of pintos they say, “A man riding a piebald horse would not conquer a mountain”. Their least favorite color is chakhan (pale-eyed cream); Turkmen elders believe such horses harbor malevolent ghosts.
While Argentine gauchos count the stripes on duns to come up with a dollar value, the Turkmen say one white foot is worth a denga (the local monetary unit), two white feet worth two dengas, and three white feet worth three dengas, but four white feet are worthless and mean no dengas at all.
The Sieur de Solleysell didn’t favor lavish leg and facial markings either. He says: “…Such Horses as have too much White upon their Face, are said to have moist Brains, and consequently to be subject to many infirmities…It is a received Maxim, that the higher the White ascends upon the legs, he is so much the worse, because he thereby resembles so much the more the Pye-balds, of which there are few to be found good, and people say of such horses that their stockings are pulled too high…A Star alone in the fore-head is lookt upon to be a very good Mark”.
In The Horse in Magic and Myth (1958), M. Oldfield Howey adds: “It is very lucky to be the owner of a horse with the forelegs having equal white stockings; but if one foreleg and one hindleg on the same side are white, it is unlucky. It is also unlucky if only one leg of the four is stockinged; but if opposite legs, as off fore and near hind are white, it is very lucky indeed”.
Do you know of other folk beliefs about color or markings? Do you think they really predict a horse’s hardiness or behavior? Leave a comment–I’d like to know!