This post has been updated with photographs.
All genes for white markings produce a wide range of amounts of white. The leopard (Appaloosa) gene produces not only a wide array of amounts of white, but also of patterns. Unlike other spotting patterns, it is often progressive with age.
Because the patterns produced by the leopard gene vary so much, I will spend more than one week on them. This week, I will focus on breaking the patterns down into components, following Sponenberg, and commenting on their distribution and genetics.
In the United States, the leopard gene and the patterns it produces tend to be associated with specific breeds, notably the Appaloosa and Pony of the Americas breeds. The Colorado Ranger and the mustang often exhibit the leopard complex colors, as well.
Worldwide, however, the leopard complex patterns are very widely distributed throughout Europe and Asia as well as the Americas. Further, most breeds which have any of these patterns have all of them—a further indication that a single gene is necessary. The only exception at the current time is that a second gene locus, Pattern-1, may be needed to produce the full leopard pattern. A number of other modifiers probably exist, but they are not known. None of these modifiers, however, seems able to do anything without the presence of at least one Leopard allele.
Genetically, the Leopard allele is one of two possible alleles (the other is wild-type) at the Transient Receptor Potential Cation Channel, Subfamily M, Member 1 locus, thankfully abbreviated to TRPM1. This locus is on equine chromosome 1. Leopard is incompletely dominant over wild-type.
Pattern-1 has not been located exactly, but it may be linked to the Extension locus (determines chestnut) on equine chromosome 3. Pattern-1 increases the amount of white in the coat and is necessary for full expression of the leopard pattern (not to be confused with the Leopard gene.) Yes, the terminology is confusing!
The first set of characteristics produced by the Leopard allele includes mottled skin, striped hooves, and a white sclera in the eye. White ear tips can also occur. These characteristics are not definitive, as other color genes may cause them, but almost all horses with the Leopard gene show at least one of them.
Horses with the Leopard gene may show other white markings, including the normal face and leg markings. If the leg markings are not present, white may still show on the cannon bones in what are generally called lightning marks or lightning stripes.
Another thing the Leopard allele may do is to introduce interspersed white hairs in either of two patterns. Frost gives a fairly uniform distribution of white hairs over the body, most prominent over the hips and in minimal cases only over the hips. Unlike classic roan, the roaning develops after birth and increases with age up to a point. The dark head and legs of classic roan are generally not visible in this pattern. Unlike grey, the horse eventually reaches a relatively stable color.
Snowflake has a similar developmental pattern, but is most prominent on the foreparts and the white hairs are concentrated into small white spots.
Extreme frosty or snowflake patterns may develop into a speckled appearance, white with small colored areas. All leopard-complex roans may also have varnish marks, with areas over bony prominences (notably the nasal bones and hips) retaining dark pigment.
The Leopard allele may also produce larger but symmetrical white markings, generally starting with a few small white areas over the hips and working forward and downward until the whole horse is white, with the flanks and throat being the last areas to lose color. This is the pattern most strongly influenced by the pattern-1 gene. If the pattern-1 allele is present, white is more extensive than if it is not present. Full white is only possible with the pattern-1 allele. These symmetrical white markings are usually present at birth, though they may increase with age.
Finally, the Leopard allele can produce colored round or oval spots over the body. In most cases, these are visible only against a roan or white background, but occasionally they can be seen against pigmented areas of the coat. The spots may be darker or lighter than the base coat color.
Surprisingly, these spots are more likely and more numerous if the horse has one Leopard allele and one wild-type allele. If the horse is homozygous for Leopard (has two Leopard alleles) the spots are more likely to be absent or sparse.
Finally, two doubtful or deleterious aspects of the Leopard allele may be noted. First, leopard interacts with black-pigmented hair to make it brittle. The result is the sparse manes and rat tails often seen on leopard-complex horses whose base color is black or bay and who retain dark color in their manes and tails.
Second, homozygotes for the Leopard allele are generally night blind. This is rarely a problem with modern usage of horses, but should be kept in mind if riding a homozygous Leopard over unfamiliar ground in darkness.
The named horses in Tourist Trap all have the leopard allele. I’ll describe Raindrop, Token, Splash, Freckles and Dusty as we get to the combinations of leopard markings that each represents. In fact,, I’ll give the full color genotypes I’ve given each.