Are Chestnut Horses Crazy? Not Necessarily, Scientists Say

Are Chestnut Horses Crazy? Not Necessarily, Scientists Say

Velie found that chestnut horses showed a "greater propensity to display behaviors that may be seen as bold,” meaning they were more likely to approach unfamiliar objects and animals.

Photo: iStock

Is your chestnut mare a hothead? Or maybe you steer clear of red horses, following the age-old adage, “chestnut mare, beware”?

Whatever you’ve learned through tradition or horse culture about chestnut horses, it’s time to put the stereotypes aside. European researchers recently reported that there’s no scientific basis to these preconceived notions—and they might even be endangering these horses’ welfare.

“I have no idea where the stereotype came from, but I’d imagine all it took was a couple of high-profile chestnut horses that misbehaved,” said Brandon Velie, BSc, MSc, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala, who was previously affiliated with the University of Sydney, in Australia.

“From a welfare perspective, my concern is that instead of re-evaluating equipment fit, training practices, stabling practices, etc., people will continue to assume a chestnut horse is kicking and rearing and so forth just because ‘that’s what they do.’”

Working with data from questionnaires, Velie and colleagues in Sweden and Australia analyzed information about behavior, age, sex, event discipline, breed, and coat color in 477 bay and chestnut horses. This preliminary study allowed them to determine that while there were associations between certain behavior traits and age, sex, and breed, color did not appear to influence the traits people consider to be “crazy.”

“Assuming that ‘crazy’ refers to behaviors such as rearing, kicking, and other conflicts, we found no evidence that chestnut horses were any crazier than bay horses,” Velie said.

They did, however, note a behavioral characteristic that many riders might actually appreciate. “The chestnut horses showed a greater propensity to display behaviors that may be seen as bold,” he said, meaning they were more likely to approach unfamiliar objects and animals—a useful quality when it comes to trail riding and many competitive events.

“While we can’t say for certainty why this may be the case, one potential explanation is that selection for the chestnut phenotype may have inadvertently involved selection for boldness,” Velie said. “There are also some other physiological reasons for why horses of varying colors may react differently to stimuli. We hope to explore these reasons in more detail in the follow-up studies.”

Velie’s research stems from his wanting to provide a critical and objective assessment of a commonly held belief, he said. “I was constantly hearing people (both friends and strangers) at the Thoroughbred sales and races constantly talking about how crazy chestnut fillies were,” he told The Horse. “Personally, I love flashy chestnuts … especially those with a lot of white and flaxen mane, but every time one does something people don’t like they blame it on the fact that it is a chestnut.”

Future studies to confirm these results would require greater numbers of horses and genotyping all the horses, including nonchestnut horses, to see if they carry chestnut genes, Velie said.

The study, “The relationship between coat colour phenotype and equine behaviour: A pilot study,” was published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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