by Kristin Berkery
When I was a kid and my family would go on road trips across the U.S., I remember my parents playing the song “The Tennessee Stud” performed by Johnny Cash. I can still clearly remember the lyrics:
The Tennessee stud was long and lean
The color of the sun and his eyes were green
>He had the nerve and he had the blood
There never was a horse like the Tennessee stud
At the time, I was completely puzzled by this description. I’d never seen a horse with green eyes in my life, and I couldn’t imagine what a yellow horse with green eyes would look like. It actually sounded a little scary.
Fast-forward to a few years ago… When I heard the song again in the Quentin Tarantino movie Jackie Brown, I had a flashback to my childhood. But this time, the meaning of the song suddenly hit me. The Tennessee Stud was probably a gold champagne Tennessee Walker with hazel eyes. Now it made sense!
I first learned about champagne horses by accident when I read about Khalvin Khlein KPM, an amber champagne three-quarter Arabian grandson of Khemosabi. Khalvin’s dam was a champagne Half-Arabian mare who probably got her color from the Saddlebred side of her pedigree. (She also had Quarter Horse breeding.) I became interested in equine color genetics around that time, so I did more research into this unique gene.
Champagne is a dominant modifier gene like cream or dun, which means that when a horse inherits it, the gene affects or dilutes the basecoat color. For example, when the cream gene is applied to chestnut, a palomino results. When champagne is applied to chestnut, a gold champagne is produced, which can look deceptively like palomino but has some distinct differences. A gold champagne is a horse with a yellow-gold or orange-gold body color (often with a pronounced metallic sheen), blond or white mane and tail, light-colored eyes, and purplish-pink skin. (There are some gold champagnes with manes and tails the same color as their bodies – they’re referred to as “self-gold” champagnes.) Throughout history, gold champagne horses were often called “pumpkin-skinned” or “light-skinned” palominos.
An amber champagne horse results from the champagne gene applied to bay. The horse may appear to be buckskin at first glance, but then you’ll notice the mane, tail, and legs are actually a chocolate color, the gold body color has a metallic sheen, the eyes are light, and the skin is a purplish-pink.
Classic champagne is produced when champagne is applied to black. Some people describe it as “Weimaraner-like” because it’s a monochrome color, others have called it “lilac dun,” and still others confuse it with grulla (dun + black). The horse has a muted brownish body color with a metallic sheen, and the legs may be a darker shade of the body color. The eyes are light and the skin is a purplish-pink.
Some other newly discovered shades of champagne include grey champagne and sable champagne. When grey and champagne combine, the genes are considered co-dominant so the horse never completely greys out. At a distance, grey champagnes’ coats appear white or very light cream with a metallic sheen (sometimes accompanied by a brown-tinted mane and tail), but upon closer inspection you see a large amount of champagne-colored fleabites. They also tend to have very heavy, almost black, mottling or freckling on their pink skin.
Sable champagnes are brown horses with the champagne gene applied. The color may be mistaken for classic champagne until genetic testing shows a horse is positive for agouti. (The presence of agouti indicates the horse is not black, so it could not be classic champagne.)
There are even more shades of champagne created when the champagne gene and cream gene are applied to a basecoat color. For instance, gold cream champagne results when a champagne gene and a cream gene combine on a chestnut basecoat. Amber cream champagne is produced when champagne and cream are applied to bay. Classic cream champagne results from champagne and cream applied to black. As you can imagine, horses with these two different dilution genes are generally very light in color, but they can have brown-tinted manes, tails, and legs. As with all horses that carry the champagne gene, cream champagnes have light eyes and purplish-pink skin.
As if this gene wasn’t complicated enough, champagnes may undergo color changes as they age. Their pinkish skin may darken to a purple color and become very mottled or freckled. Their eyes, which could be bright blue at birth, could change to hazel or amber in adulthood, and sometimes go through all three colors during the horse’s lifetime.
Coincidentally, not long after I started researching champagne horses, I discovered a well-known classic champagne Tennessee Walker stallion named Champagne Look in the town where I live. His dam, Champagne Lady Diane (foaled in 1969), made the color famous. She was given her name because her classic champagne color was reminiscent of sparkling wine, and the few people familiar with the unique color called it “champagne” in honor of the mare. However, it would take many years before geneticists and breed registries would acknowledge the color.
When Champagne Lady Diane was a young mare, her owner, Diane Green, wondered what color her horse could be, so she sent hair samples to the University of Tennessee and Auburn University for testing. The laboratories were stumped. They knew the mare wasn’t dun, grey, roan, and didn’t have the cream gene. But what was she? The labs described her as “a genetic color accident.”
Today, geneticists don’t believe that Champagne Lady Diane was the first champagne horse, considering that stories have been passed down for many years about “buckskin” and “palomino” horses with pink skin and light eyes. (In addition, “The Tennessee Stud” hit the music charts ten years before Champagne Lady Diane was foaled.) It’s believed that Champagne Lady Diane owes her color to her dam Mack’s Golden Girl H, probably a gold champagne mare, and there are other lines in Tennessee Walkers that carry the champagne gene as well.
Champagne is found in a number of American breeds, including Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers and related breeds, Quarter Horses and related breeds, and American Cream Drafts, among others. There are documented part-Arabians with as much as 7/8 Arabian blood that express the champagne gene.
A couple of years ago, my grandmother in Kansas purchased a 20-year-old Missouri Foxtrotter mare as a companion for her retired Arabian gelding. Over the phone I asked my mother what color the mare was, and she hesitated for a moment. “She looks buckskin, but she’s kind of a funny color.” My ears perked when I heard this because I knew champagne was found in Foxtrotters, and “funny color” is a good way to describe champagne when you’re not familiar with it. So I began asking the probing questions: What color is her skin? Purple with freckles. What color are her eyes? A funny light color. Eureka! She had to be a champagne-colored horse. I was able to verify it in person, and was amazed to see even her winter coat had a metallic sheen.
Champagne horses are out there, but we may not always know it when we find them. If you ever came across a horse that had a color you just couldn’t describe, or it didn’t quite look like the buckskins, palominos, and duns you’d known before, maybe that horse was a champagne.
Years ago I saw Michael Crichton’s first movie Westworld but never noticed anything memorable about the horses…until I watched the movie again in 2002. As I admired the beautiful horse Yul Brynner’s robot character was riding, I noticed something different about it – he was amber champagne! He looked like a buckskin, but he had light eyes and light skin. I tried to find information on the web about the horse but never discovered what breed he was or where he came from.
There are a few sites on the web that explain the champagne gene and provide many reference photos of champagne horses. My favorites include the International Champagne Horse Registry at www.ichregistry.com and the Champagne Horses Website at www.champagnehorses.net.
Originally featured in the January/February 2005 issue of Horsing Around magazine.