Phlegmatic Greys and Woman-Killing Horses – Equine Coat Colour Theory

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Some renaissance and early modern horsekeeping manuals get quite carried away about horse colours and what they mean for the temperament and physical qualities of each animal. In 1560, Thomas Blundeville wrote, “A horse for the most part is coloured as he is complexioned”

for if he hath more of the Earth than of the [other three elements], he is melancholy, heavy and faint-hearted, and of colour a black, russet, a bright or dark dun. But if he hath more of water, then he is phlegmatic, slow, dull, and apt to lose flesh, and of a colour most commonly milk white. If of the air, then he is sanguine, and therefore pleasant, nimble and of colour is most commonly a bay. And if of the fire, then he is choleric, and therefore light, hot and fiery, a stirrer, and seldom of any great strength, and is wont to be of colour bright sorrel. But when he doth participate in all the four elements, equally and in due proportion, then he is perfect, and most commonly shall be one of the colours following. That is to say, a brown bay, a dapple grey, a black full of silver hairs, a black like a moor or a fair roan, which kinds of horses are most commendable, most temperate, strongest and of gentlest nature.

We can see the legacy of those theories in our memes about chestnut mares and that old rhyme about markings:

One white sock buy him,
two white socks try him,
three white socks suspect him,
four white socks reject him.

I’d love to hear about coat colour theories in other culture and I’ll certainly collect them as I can. Today I’m going to share some from a Chinese text called Essential Arts of the Common People, compiled by Jia Sixie at some point in the Wei Dynasty period between 534 and 549:

Chestnut horses with shoulders that are yellow marked with black, horses with coats like that of a deer marked with yellow, dappled horses, and white horses with black manes are all good horses.

If there is a streak of white running from the forehead into the mouth, this is called ‘Yuying’ or ‘Dilu’. If servants ride this kind of horse, they die outside their own country. If a master rides it, he will be executed in the marketplace. This is the most inauspicious of horses.

If the left and right rear feet are white, this is not beneficial to people. A white horse with four black feet is not beneficial. A yellow horse with a white mouth is not beneficial. A horse with white rear feet, left and right, will kill women.

If the patterns on the muzzle are like the characters wang (king) or gong (duke), the horse will live to be fifty sui, like the character huo (fire), forty sui; like the character tian (heaven), thirty sui; like the character xiao (small), twenty sui; like the character jin (present), eighteen sui; like the character si (four) eight sui; like the character zhai (dwelling), seven sui. [sui means a year but I’m not sure how Chinese calendar years worked at this time)

Don’t tell me you weren’t warned about flashy horses, ladies!

Source: Harrist, Robert E. (1997), “The Legacy of Bole: Physiognomy and Horses in Chinese Painting,” Artibus Asiae 57.1/2: 135-156.

One thought on “Phlegmatic Greys and Woman-Killing Horses – Equine Coat Colour Theory

  1. I for one have never seen a chestnut with yellow shoulders marked with black. Among cattlemen in parts of Texas the grey dun, especially if marked with a stripe down the back, is considered to be both smart and enduring. Stocking feet are not appreciated because the hooves are considered weak

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