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

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


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.

Thematic Variation in the Przewalski’s Horse


A domestic horse with a decidedly Przewalski look. Near Hustai, Mongolia. Photo by author.

Two pieces that turned up in internet searches within minutes of one another. Firstly, a rather gruelling article about the complications involved in trying to breed Przewalskis and return them to a degree of wildness in China. And secondly, as light relief, an entire site full of chocolate moulds, which includes one for a… Przewalski. The photo is of a Przewalski-esque domestic horse belonging to a herder just outside Hustai National Park, Mongolia.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 8) terracotta horses, photographed by author at National Museum of China, Beijing, by author.

Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 8) terracotta horses, photographed by author at National Museum of China, Beijing.

  • What the what? No, this is not breaking news, but something I discovered today. Lambourn will have the UK’s first “horse monorail” courtesy of Turkish industrialist and racehorse owner, Mehmet Kurt. As far as I can tell it’s a horsewalker from Tron (have a look at the photo here); apparently the “Kurtsystem” will be great for rehabilitating horses. You learn something new every day. (Newbury Today)
  • The NYT reports on the presentation by Turkmenistan of an Akhal Teke stallion to President Xi Jinping of China. There’s a little on the story of this “heavenly horse” in Chinese history and its current return. I was surprised to read that Genghis Khan rode one – curious to see what the Mongolians would make of that. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, someone’s riding lesson went very wrong when a saddled and bridled horse ended up galloping riderless around Beijing’s fifth ring road, chased by a dog. (Shanghaist)
  • Jalopnik on how Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome gets about now that he’s a champ. (Jalopnik)

Taoism and the Nature of Horses

Terracotta horse and two soldiers from the Terracotta Army buried near the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin, at Lintong, Shaanxi Province, 1974. Wikicommons: photographer, Babelstone.

Terracotta horse and two soldiers from the Terracotta Army buried near the Mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin, at Lintong, Shaanxi Province, 1974. Wikicommons: photographer, Babelstone.

Discovered while reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals: an extract from the writings of Chuang Tzu, a Taoist collection believed to be written around the 4th century BC wholly or in part by Zhuangzi/Chuang Tzu – an official in what is now Anhui, China. This is from book nine, Mâ Thî, or “Horses’s Hoofs”.

Horses can with their hoofs tread on the hoarfrost and snow, and with their hair withstand the wind and cold; they feed on the grass and drink water; they prance with their legs and leap: this is the true nature of horses. Though there were made for them grand towers and large dormitories, they would prefer not to use them. But when Po-lâo (arose and) said, ‘I know well how to manage horses,’ (men proceeded) to singe and mark them, to clip their hair, to pare their hoofs, to halter their heads, to bridle them and hobble them, and to confine them in stables and corrals. (When subjected to this treatment), two or three in every ten of them died. (Men proceeded further) to subject them to hunger and thirst, to gallop them and race them, and to make them go together in regular order. In front were the evils of the bit and ornamented breastbands, and behind were the terrors of the whip and switch. (When so treated), more than half of them died.

Extract shared by, which has made available on line James Legge’s 1891 translation.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links


Yes, we’re still deep in the horse meat scandal.

  • You can now buy a “horse burger” fancy dress costume (Business Insider)
  • Only 13% of Americans would consider eating horse meat (almost twice the percentage who would eat dog), whereas 34% would consider alligator lasagna (KTAR)
  • Groups in Oklahoma want to build a horse abattoir. ( and As does a business in Roswell, New Mexico ( And a Philly restaurant wants to add horse meat to the menu (Consumerist)
  • Grub Street suggests 20 places to eat horse, including locavore horse lasagna in Scotland. (Grub Street)
  • A visit to a Kazakh horse meat market (NPR) and a visit to a Polish horse sale (Baltimore Sun)
  • In the merry-go-round that is the international, industrialised food chain, an Irish slaughterhouse sent “beef” to the Czech Republic which was in fact horse. (USA Today)
  • A German politician and clergyman are drubbed for saying that the rejected horse-beef food should be given to the poor. (The Local)
  • Russia threatens to suspend horse meat imports from the EU – something of a joke given that they continue to import possibly bute-laced horse meat from the USA. (Fox News)
  • Could the incorrect labelling have begun in Romania after all? Mislabelled horse meat found in the country (Bloomberg)
  • China reacts to the horse meat scandal (Bloomberg)
  • Meanwhile, I have more local news stories about neglected horses in the US than I can load up here.
  • Non-meat-related uses for horses: a California teen escapes gang culture through his horse. The pastor who helped Dawan Whitmore get riding lessons comments: “He learned how to feed the horse every day twice a day, rain or shine. Forget football practice, forget all those other things. It teaches him a great deal of responsibility. Not to mention self worth.” (23ABC News)