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Buckskin is a term that defines a color, not a breed, but the American Buckskin Registry Association will register horses of this color, as well as grullas and the various shades of dun. This stems from a time when color genetics were largely unknown, or educated guess work at best. Back then it was assumed that these colors were related.
A lot of research has been done in color genetics over the last few decades, so we have a much better understanding of what is taking place when the various colors occur in a horse.
BUCKSKIN AND OTHER COLOR DESCRIPTIONS
First of all, the color description terms we use were colloquial terms and were applied differently in different regions and states. Color geneticists adopted them at some point, for lack of better terms, and instead of coming up with completely new terms that everyone would have had to learn from scratch. In most instances, this worked well because the terms in use happened to describe colors of actually different inheritances. In other instances, the official definition of a term assigned by color geneticists conflicted with the common use in some regions. Buckskin is such a case, as in some parts of North America it was used for what we now refer to as dun.
DUN IS NOT BUCKSKIN
The various expressions of dun are related, including grulla. However, there is no relation of the dun factor and the buckskin color. It is important to keep this in mind!
Typical for the dun factor is that the horses always have a dorsal stripe, and usually they also have leg stripes, both of which never occur in a straight buckskin.
The dun gene is a dilution factor that turns a bay horse into a (regular) dun; or a sorrel/ chestnut into a red dun; or a black horse into a grulla (pronounced grooya). Grulla is a Spanish term meaning crane. In Spanish-speaking South America, a grulla is called lobuno.
To speak of a zebra dun or a line-back dun, or to even mention the dorsal stripe of a dun, is therefore mentioning the same thing twice over. It would not be a dun if it did not have a dorsal stripe; all duns do have a dorsal stripe.
Some duns and grullas also have shoulder stripes, stripes on their necks, on their forehead, and so-called sawtooth markings or fishbone markings on their backs, running at a right angle to the dorsal stripe.
There is no extra registry for duns and grullas, but as has been mentioned above, the American Buckskin Registry Association covers those as well, meaning that its name is rather misleading.
THE VALUE OF KNOWING COLOR GENES
Although color genetics may appear a rather dry and abstract topic, and although many find it confusing and even superfluous, it is actually quite helpful to have a basic understanding of it, and it is absolutely necessary to understand how these things work in order to successfully breed horses.
Successful horse breeding includes producing colors that most people find attractive. Color is sneered at by some breeders and riders, saying a good horse does not have to have any special color, or something to that effect, yet for many others an attractive color like buckskin helps sell horses.
THE GENE RESPONSIBLE FOR BUCKSKIN
The gene responsible for resulting in a buckskin is called the cream gene. This gene dilutes a horse’s basic color in a way that looks creamy. This same cream gene also produces palominos
A buckskin horse is one whose basic color is bay or brown, but with an inherited cream gene which dilutes the bay color which becomes buckskin! The lower legs, the points, and mane and tail, remain black. The cream gene does this if it is only inherited as single copy, from one parent. If both parents pass on a cream gene, then the horse carries it in double copy and a double dilution results as a color called perlino. So if a Buckskin is your desired result, pay attention to both parents!
Also on the base of sorrel or chestnut, a single copy of the cream gene results in a palomino, a double copy will result in a cremello.
One needs to keep in mind that, just as horses of the bay and brown color spectrum come in a wide variety of different shades, the same holds true when those colors are diluted by the action of the cream gene, so, deepening on the shade of the underlying basic color inheritance, a Buckskin can be of a dark, brownish color, or a bright, golden color. For some reason, dappling occurs often in association with the cream gene.
BUCKSKIN PLUS DUN
The buckskin inheritance is not exclusive of other color inheritances though, which means such a horse can have a dun gene, too. The expert eye is able to see if a dun horse has a cream gene as well. If a cream gene is present in a red dun (sorrel or chestnut x dun), the horse will look like a palomino, but the reddish dorsal and leg stripes will give away the dun gene. In a dun, the cream gene is betrayed by a lighter, milkier color, and especially by a lighter-colored head. Typically, duns and grullas have dark faces, while duns with the cream, or buckskin, gene will have light-colored faces.
Some famous horses have possessed both genes; for instance, the great reining horse, reining foundation sire and first NRHA million-dollar sire Hollywood Jac 86, usually considered a palomino at first glance, was actually a red dun with a cream gene to boot, as he had a dorsal stripe and leg stripes, too. And his son Hollywood Dun It, at least as famous, whose offspring have won more in reining than any other stallion’s, was a dun with a cream gene, or to say it in other words, he was a dun as well as a buckskin.
If a horse’s basic color is black, and it inherits the cream gene, the result will be something similar to grulla, but of course without the dorsal stripe and leg stripes. Such a color is referred to as smokey.
The dun gene does not result in a double dilution when passed on in double copy, that is, if the horse is homozygous for the dun factor. Cremellos and perlinos are not considered attractive by most people, and that is why it can be important to know whether a horse is carrying the cream gene or not.
By not breeding a buckskin to another one, or by not breeding one to a palomino, or a smokey -- basically, by not mating any of these diluted colors, one can easily avoid the occurrence of the almost white expressions of cremellos and perlinos (those whitish double-copied horses are usually hard to sell).
The Palomino Horse Breeders of America association is a similar to the Buckskin Registry in that neither represents breed and is only registering horses for a color, but of varying backgrounds and breeds. The American Paint Horse Association, by contrast, is a color-oriented registry (in this case white spots), but here the horses must be of specific breeding, and their studbook is closed.