The Champagne Gene
The champagne gene is a dominant dilution gene, first documented worldwide in 1996 by Dr. Philip Sponenberg, Ph.D., and Dr. Ann Bowling, Ph.D. While the champagne gene did exist prior to this, it was often misidentified. Many champagnes were mistakenly called "pumpkin-skinned palominos" due to their mottled skin and golden coloration. However, the champagne gene is distinctly separate from the cream gene (palomino, buckskin, etc.) and the dun gene (grullo, dun, etc.).
Many champagnes were mistakenly called "albinos" because their bright blue eyes and pink skin at birth. However, albinism is not common in horses. In fact, there has never been a documented case of a true albino horse.
In addition to the bright blue eyes that later change to hazel or gold, and the pink skin that mottles with age, the champagne gene effects the coat color pigments. The gene causes red pigment to be diluted to gold, and black pigment to be diluted to chocolate.
See our "research" section for more information and articles published about the gene and horses carrying it.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Kentucky successfully mapped the champagne gene. A genetic test is now available!
Equine coat color genetics can be tricky, but this primer will hopefully give you a good foundation for learning.
A gene is a code for a particular trait or feature. They control everything about an individual from appearance to metabolism and beyond. Genes are found in sets of two, with the individual genes in the set being called an allele.
A horse that is heterozygous has two different alleles. It can be said that he or she carries one copy of a particular gene. The horse will produce a foal carrying the gene 50% of the time when bred to a horse without the gene. Heterozygous cream dilutes are: palominos, buckskins, and smokey blacks.
A horse that is homozygous has two like alleles. It can be said that he or she carries two copies of a particular gene. The horse will produce a foal carrying the gene 100% of the time whether or not the horse it is bred to carries the gene. In order for a horse to be homozygous for ANY gene, both of the horse's parents must have the gene and pass it. Homozygous cream dilutes are: cremellos, perlinos, and smokey creams.
A Dominant gene is a gene that “dominates.” If a dominant gene is present, it will be expressed. It can not be hidden. Dominant genes are written as capital letters in genetic formulas. An example of a dominant gene is the black pigment gene, written as “E.”
A Recessive gene is a gene that can “hide.” In order for the gene to express itself, it must be in homozygous form (meaning both parents must pass the gene). Recessive genes are written as lowercase letters in genetic formulas. An example of a recessive gene is the red pigment gene, written as “e.”
All equine coat colors start out with a basecolor. Basically, underneath all of the other genes, all horses are either red or black. Some people may refer to bay as a basecolor, but bay is really black + agouti.
Color modifiers change the appearance of the base color. Color modifiers include Grey (progressive modifier that mixes white hairs with the coat color), Roan (modifier that mixes white hairs with the body color – true roans have solid heads and legs), and the most prevalent of the modifiers: the agouti.
The agouti is a modifier that regulates the distribution of black pigment. Put simply, it limits the black on a black horse to the points (ears, legs, mane, and tail). A red based horse (see "color recipes") can carry the agouti without showing it, as the agouti does not affect red pigment. However, a black horse can not carry the agouti without expressing it.
If your horse is "a" (actually shorthand for "aa") then he/she is homozygous recessive for the agouti, but it is easier to understand if I explain it as "NO agouti" (which is technically incorrect, but the easier to picture). Black horses are "aa." If a horse is "Aa", then he/she is heterozygous for the agouti and can throw horses with or without the agouti.
If a horse is "A" (shorthand for "AA"), the he/she is homozygous for the agouti and will NEVER throw black based horses without the agouti...that means NO blacks, smokey blacks, classic champagnes, blue roans, etc...any black-based foal will have the black limited to the points. So if you have a black mare and you want a foal who is "any color except black", then breed your mare to a stud who is homozygous for the agouti!
Dilution genes are genes that dilute, or modify, existing pigment (color) in the horse's coat. Some examples of dilution genes are: the champagne gene, cream gene, the silver gene and dun gene. Each one is separate and effects the basecolor of the horse differently. A single horse may have several different dilution genes. See our composite champagne dilute pages under classifications.
Pattern genes effect the placement of white throughout the horse’s coat. They are responsible for “spotted” horses. The pattern genes are the tobiano gene, the overo gene, and the sabino gene.
|Basecolor||+ Champagne||+ Cream||+ Dun|
|"Chestnut" or "Sorrel"|
|Gold Champagne||Palomino||Red Dun or Claybank Dun|
|Classic Champagne||Smokey Black||Black Dun or Grullo|
[black + agouti]
|Amber Champagne||Buckskin||Bay Dun or Zebra Dun|
The champagne gene is a gene that effects pigments. It changes red pigment to gold and black pigment to chocolate or lilac.
This horse would be a chestnut in the absence of the champagne gene. Notice that all of the red pigment has been diluted to gold.
[Brooke's Midas Touch, Tennessee Walking Horse stallion]
This horse would be a black in the absence of the champagne gene. Notice that all of the black pigment has been diluted to chocolate.
[Jetsmoke N Thunder, Quarter Horse stallion]
The champagne coat often has a distinct sheen to it. This is believed to be because of the unique structure of the hair shaft. The sheen can make capturing the champagne color on film difficult.
[Champagne Look, Tennessee Walking Horse Horse stallion]
Here is another wonderful shot of the sheen that can be seen on the champagne coat. This flaxen gold stallions looks as if he is glowing.
[Pleasure's Pot O' Gold, Tennessee Walking Horse Horse stallion]
This page lists various terms used to classify champagne colors by basecolor and additional modifying genes.
Basic Champagne Colors
[black + agouti + champagne]
Amber champagne can be thought of as "champagne on bay." The body color is lightened from red to gold and the points are lightened from black to chocolate.
[black + champagne]
Classic champagne can be thought of as "champagne on black." The body and points are the same chocolate to lilac color.
[chestnut + champagne] Gold champagne can be thought of as "champagne on chestnut/sorrel." The body color is lightened from red to gold. The gold champagne may have a flaxen or self-colored mane and tail.
[basecolor + champagne + cream]
The champagne gene combined with the cream gene appears to have an additive effect. Red pigment lightens to cream and black pigment to rust.
[basecolor + champagne + silver (dapple)]
The champagne gene combined with the silver [dapple] gene appears to have an additive effect. The black pigment lightened by the champagne gene is further effected by the silver dilution gene.
[basecolor + champagne + dun] The champagne gene combined with the dun gene produces few changes in the coat color. However, a dun champagne will have a distinct dorsal stripe and leg barring.
[basecolor + champagne + roan]
The champagne gene combined with the true roan gene can be difficult to identify. When the white hairs that are found in roans are mixed with champagne-colored hairs, they are very hard to see. This might have to do the hollow hair shafts unique to the champagne color. From even a short distance the white hairs make the coat look uniform. A roan champagne may look like a lighter version of non-roan champagne. They must be seen very closely and it might even help to lift the mane to see the non sun faded coat.