Champagne Shades
by Liz Nutter
Copyright 1999, Voice of the Tennessee Walking Horse, Lewisburg, Tennessee
Reprinted with permission from Liz Nutter

So, you think you have a palomino, or maybe you were lucky enough to find a buckskin. Have you looked under your horse's tail to be sure?

No, this isn't a bawdy joke. Truth is, not all golden horses are what they seem. According to the latest research by two of the country's leading equine color geneticists, many "palominos" and "buckskins" are actually the creation of a newly documented gene the champagne gene.

I repeat, newly documented. That doesn't mean the gene itself is new. In fact, there's strong evidence to believe champagnes have helped "color" our breed since the very foundation of our industry yes, since old Golden Sunshine F-44 himself.

But, more about the history later. First, exactly what color is champagne? As it turns out, it's a lot of colors.
Walking horse enthusiasts who have heard of "champagne" most likely think of the unusual weimeraner-tan shade of the old show mare Champagne Lady Diane and her descendants, including the mare's only surviving son, Champagne Look, owned by Bea Kinkade in California (her first champagne son, Champagne Night, owned by Wiley Bailey in Arkansas, died last summer). Kinkade, with the help and support of geneticist Dr. Ann Bowling at the University of California at Davis, has almost single-handedly educated the walking horse world on that particular shade of champagne. In fact, it was Kinkade who convinced the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association to include the champagne color option on registration forms.

Phil Sponenberg, DVM, PhD. at Virginia Tech has also studied the champagne gene for many years, since one of his own horses, a Spanish Mustang mare, was champagne. By tracking down dozens of champagnes and their offspring around the country, Dr. Sponenberg discovered that the champagne gene creates a wide range of colors beyond the classic weimeraner-tan, including a palette of golds, yellows and ambers.

Sponenberg explains, "The champagne gene is what we call a 'dilution gene.' That means it dilutes any horse's base color whether that's black, bay or chestnut much like the cremello gene does to create palominos and buckskins."
According to Sponenberg, the champagne gene dilutes red tones (chestnut and sorrel) to gold or yellow, while it turns black tones to brown or tan. For instance, a horse that would have otherwise been black is diluted to the classic champagne color a brownish-tan or taupe with chocolate brown points (legs, mane and tail). On a bay, the red body is diluted to gold, and the points are diluted to brown, resulting in what some champagne breeders are calling an "amber" champagne a horse that looks similar to a buckskin, except the points are brown instead of black. On a chestnut or sorrel, all the red is diluted to gold, with either a gold or flaxen mane and tail, which results in a "gold" champagne often a palomino look-alike.

Despite similarities with palominos and buckskins, it is easy to separate the champagnes from the others, Sponenberg says. "Look at the skin. True palominos and buckskins have the same dark gray/black skin that chestnuts, bays and blacks have," he points out. "Champagnes, on the other hand, have pale skin pink, whitish or sometimes golden which is usually speckled or mottled with dark freckles. Old-timers often called it pumpkin-skinned."

Which brings us back to the "have you looked under the tail?" question. Because the freckles or mottling can be heavy around the muzzle and eyes, even to the point of making the skin look dark, the best place to check for skin color is under the tail or between the back legs, in the udder or sheath area.

Champagne foals of all shades are usually born with bright blue eyes which change to a golden amber or hazel, usually by the time the foal is a year old. If it weren't for those blue eyes and pink skin, champagne babies would often be difficult to identify since they can be much darker at birth than they are after their first shedding. Many "gold" champagnes are born bright chestnut, with red manes and tails; some "amber" champagnes are born bay.

Another key characteristic of champagnes is that their fur tends to be exceptionally shiny, with an almost metallic or iridescent sheen. They can look somewhat dull in the shade, but out in the sun, they practically glow. Many people have commented on how champagnes seem to "change colors" in different lights.

Champagnes, like palominos and buckskins, are sometimes dappled. On the classic and amber shades, the dappling is usually darker than the body color. On the gold shades, the dapples can be light or dark. Sometimes, dappling is noticeable only in winter. Also, unlike most palominos and buckskins, who tend to get paler in the winter, champagnes are usually darker in winter.

In the past, geneticists haven't been quite sure how to classify these colors. The amber champagnes were just called buckskins; the classic champagnes were usually lumped in with duns, often called lilac duns; and most geneticists just put the gold champagnes over with the palominos, calling them "pink-skinned palominos." (Note: the Palomino Horse Association has always registered all "palominos" regardless of skin color. In 1943, however, the larger palomino organization, the Palomino Horse Breeders of America, stopped accepting the light-skinned ones, which possibly helps explain why so few champagnes exist today.)

So, although the basic champagne shades (classic, amber and gold) are not new, the discovery that they are related and created by the same gene is very new. Which is why there are still a few unanswered questions.
For instance, the Sponenberg/Bowling research indicates that the gene is a dominant one. That means there is a 50% chance of getting a champagne foal any time you breed a champagne to a non-champagne (it also means that if your foal isn't a champagne color, it doesn't carry the gene recessively). What is not known, however, is whether the champagne gene in homozygous form (a double dose, so to speak) is like the cremello gene, doubling the dilution effect to create an almost-white horse with blue eyes and freckles, or whether it is more like the dun gene, which looks no different in double doses than in single doses (a homozygous dun looks just like a heterozygous dun).
Several offspring from gold-champagne-to-gold-champagne crosses have been found, and they all look like their parents, gold with pale manes and tails. However, as with any dominant gene, there is only a 25% chance of getting a homozygous with any heterozygous-to-heterozygous cross, so maybe we just haven't found that elusive double-dilute yet.

On the other hand, the champagne gene does appear to have an "additive" effect when combined with the cremello gene. In three documented instances, a gold champagne TWH stallion crossed with a palomino TWH mare created an "ivory champagne," a cream-colored horse with light eyes (blue or greenish-amber) and mottled pink skin. It is believed that an ivory champagne crossed with, say, a chestnut has an equal chance (25%) of producing a chestnut, a gold champagne, a dark-skinned palomino, or another ivory champagne.

The creation of the three ivory champagnes above does not mean that whenever a gold champagne is crossed with a palomino the result is a double-diluted ivory champagne. That only happens 25% of the time. The other odds are, again, 25% chestnut, 25% gold champagne and 25% dark-skinned palomino. Carol Babbs in Illinois, for instance, has a palomino mare who, when bred to a gold champagne stallion, produced a dark-skinned palomino filly one year and then a pink-skinned gold champagne filly the next year.

Okay, okay. Enough of the genetic technobabble. Let's get to the really intriguing stuff. Where did today's champagne TWHs come from?

Golden Lady - at age 33My theory is that some of our very first yellow horses were champagnes. In fact and I can hear the pshaws of disbelief already I believe old Golden Lady #350031, foaled in 1913, and her three golden foals (Golden Sunshine F-44, Golden Girl #350019, and Yellow Jacket #360141) as well as many of her grand-get, including Barker's Moonbeam #380497, were actually champagnes.

Golden Lady was owned throughout her breeding career by Burt Hunter of Lewisburg, Tennessee. Burt's daughter, Jean Hunter, remembers well her family's golden horses and described Golden Sunshine F-44 to me in vivid detail. "He was the most unusual color you've ever seen," she says. "You could put a gold dollar up against him and stand back in the sun, and you couldn't see the dollar. And he had white skin and yellow eyes. His mother, Golden Lady, was the same way." Golden Girl and Yellow Jacket had the same pale skin and eyes, Jean added.

So, what about Golden Sunshine's most famous son, Barker's Moonbeam, who in 1948 was called "the foundation sire of the Palomino Walking Horse" by Dr. H. Arthur Zappe, secretary of the Palomino Horse Breeders of America?
Well, McAllen Finley of Readyville, Tennessee, says, "I can remember my grandfather saying that Barker's Moonbeam was sort of a dun color, yellow with a brownish mane and tail. And he had pink skin. He was not a palomino." Finley's grandfather was none other than Vance Paschal, noted palomino breeder and the nephew of C. O. Barker, who owned Barker's Moonbeam.

Ray Barker, C. O.'s son, confirms the yellow-with-brown-points description, "to the best of [his] memory." Even more telling, Barker's Moonbeam was registered simply as "yellow horse." Period. No "white mane and tail," as most palominos were registered back then.

Certainly, there are many famous yellow sons of Barker's Moonbeam who were dark-skinned palominos, including our breed's most famous palomino, Allen's Gold Zephyr #431975, a.k.a. Roy Rogers' Trigger, Jr. But, there are at least two ways this could have happened.

First, breeding gold to gold was a common practice in the 1930s and 1940s, and some of the dark-skinned sons and daughters of Barker's Moonbeam most likely had dark-skinned palomino or buckskin dams. It could also be that Barker's Moonbeam was an amber champagne with an added cremello gene (the color of his dam is unknown she may have been a palomino or buckskin, for all we know). If he did carry two different dilution genes, Barker's Moonbeam could have produced both pink-skinned champagnes and dark-skinned palominos/buckskins (which would help explain his extremely high color-production percentage).

Unfortunately, good-quality photographs from the 1930s and 1940s are very difficult to find. Almost none show faces in enough detail to determine skin color (and I've yet to find an under-the-tail shot!).

However, there's no doubt in my mind that many of our industry's first yellow horses were pink-skinned champagnes. Too many of our champagnes today trace directly to Golden Lady for the case to be otherwise.

Take, for example, the champagnes produced over the past 20-plus years by Belle Zyla in Beloit, Wisconsin. Back in the early 1970s, Belle bought a pink-skinned cream-yellow mare named Yellow Lady M. #667022, sired by Yellow Jacket's Ace #482625 (golden, with a white mane and tail), who was a direct son of Yellow Jacket #360141 (a son of old Golden Lady). There is no other line of yellow or gold in Yellow Lady M.'s papers, so her champagne gene must have been passed down from Golden Lady. With Yellow Lady M. as her foundation, Belle Zyla has raised four additional generations of champagnes of all shades classic, amber, gold and ivory (although they were registered, for lack of alternatives, as duns, buckskins, palominos and cremellos).

Yellow JacketIn Helena, Montana, Gay Wagner has nurtured another line of champagnes which trace, in one single line of color, directly to Golden Lady. Gay's first classic champagne mare was Jester's Fanfare #741782, out of a yellow mare named R.J.'s Lady Sunset #682192, who was out of Miracles Golden Lady #601714, who was a daughter of Buck LaMarr #450574, whose sire was Flash LaMarr #411549 (registered as yellow with a flax mane and tail), who in turn was sired by Yellow Jacket #360141, son of Golden Lady. Whew! Today, Gay still owns a daughter and a granddaughter of her old mare, and both are classic tan-with-brown champagnes.

Flash LaMarrOne of the best known gold champagne stallions on the east coast is Sir Joseph's Rocker #833066, a long-striding plantation show horse owned by Curtis and Kathy Tibbs of Kearneysville, West Virginia. Although bred sparingly, Rocky has sired well over a dozen gold champagne foals.

Rocky's dam, Flame's Gold Honey #782972, was sired by Wilson's Gold Flame #691191, sired by Wilson's Band O Gold #591699, sired by Wilson Strollin Gold #540189. But here's where things get tricky. Strollin Gold was by a son of Allen's Red Eagle #390381, whose mamma was the buckskin mare Hendrixson Bonnie #410642 (the grand-dam of the dark-skinned palomino stallion John A.'s Chance #491026, which means that Allen's Red Eagle was also probably dark-skinned). But Strollin Gold's dam was Kate Vaught #444177, a yellow mare by, aha!, Barker's Moonbeam, grandson of Golden Girl.

Kathy Tibb's sister, Vicki Danmeyer, owns a classic champagne mare named Flame's Ebony Rose #920378, sired by Boyd's Gold Flame #853596, sired by Wilson's Gold Flame. Since the Tibbs' stallion and Vicki's mare are both Wilson's Gold Flame grand-get, odds are that he, Wilson's Band O Gold, and probably Wilson's Strollin Gold, were all pink-skinned gold champagnes.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems in tracing the color on champagnes is that, until recently, no one knew what to call them. In the past, the various shades have been registered as yellow, palomino, buckskin, dun, brown, even chestnut or bay. Many were also roan, and back in the 1930s and 1940s, a horse that might have been a "yellow" roan was more than likely registered as simply "roan." So, it's not unusual for the champagne line of color to just "disappear" in a pedigree.

Champagne Lady Diane #696266 herself, registered as a chestnut, is a prime example. Although her dam, Mack's Golden Girl H. #650174, was registered as yellow with a flax mane and tail, the line of "color" stops there. Both parents of Mack's Golden Girl H. were registered as sorrel, and the four grandparents were registered as chestnut, sorrel, white (by Merry Boy, a roan), and roan. (Note: After having tracked down dozens of gold champagnes a few of which are practically orange I can easily understand how some of the old gold champagnes were misregistered. Some of the ones I've seen would not have qualified as "yellow," and there were no other options other than sorrel.)
Another well known line of champagne walking horses is the Arian line, started by Linda Howland of Kempton, Pennsylvania. Howland's champagnes also began with a mare, Argot's Merry Rena #705779 ("Maggie"), who is gold with a white mane and tail. Her dam, Merry Go Boy's Rena #665603, was also gold, sired by Merry Go Boy's Son #571362, who was registered as brown. Maggie, when bred to Howland's black stallion (Arian Jazz Man), produced three champagnes, including an amber champagne stallion, Arian's Golden Sun #830478, now owned by Midge McGoldrick of Anza, California. Golden Sun's champagne sons include Fingall MacCailleach #896664, Arian Gold Perfect'n #888755, and Arian Golden Prince #906562.

Imagine McGoldrick's shock last summer when Dr. Sponenberg told her not only that Arian's Golden Sun, her "buckskin" stallion, was actually an amber champagne, but also that her "palomino" stallion was a gold champagne, AND that her "cremello" stallion was an ivory champagne. Talk about changing colors!

But McGoldrick was delighted. In addition to Arian's Golden Sun, she stands at stud her show-ring champion, Ebony's Rocky Boy #857437 (her gold champagne), and his son, Windcrest's High Voltage #901649 (her ivory champagne). Rocky is a Tennessee-born-and-bred stallion whose great-great-granddam (Betsy Jones #452538) was a daughter of Barker's Moonbeam.

Other gold champagne stallions leaving their colorful mark on our breed include Brooke's Class Act #847431, owned by Goldman Cherry in Olmstead, Kentucky; Big Yellow Chief #736141, owned by Vance King in Rockvale, Tennessee; and Mr. Yellow Gold Dust #902458, owned by Odean and Loreen Harp in Lafayette, TN.

One of the most intriguing champagne stallions is Go Boy's Gold Insignia #882036, who is a deep amber champagne (almost a copper-gold, with a dark chocolate mane and tail). It appears that he is also a homozygous tobiano, with 100% spotted foals, about half of which are also champagnes. Owned until recently by Mike and Tommie Spurlock in Shelbyville (who now have a solid, classic champagne stallion out of an Insignia daughter), Insignia is now the property of Charles R. Short in Bloomington, Indiana.

No doubt, the many beautiful shades of champagne will become increasingly popular in Tennessee Walking Horse circles as more breeders learn how to produce them. As an avid student of old "yellow" bloodlines, I plan to continue trying to identify which of our old horses were dark-skinned palominos and which were pink-skinned champagnes. If you'd like to share your pedigrees, photographs, ideas and opinions (even those which strongly disagree with my own!), please write to Liz Nutter, 1615 Palmer Road, Lebanon, TN 37090.

Copyright 2005 CHBOA. All rights reserved.