I’ve had my fingers stuck to the keyboard tapping out some promised material to a client. This meant giving the barn a fast sweep and the boys promises of great grooming sessions to come. Time makes us notice changes we sometimes miss everyday. Such was the case when I stripped off Moke’s fly sheet for that promised spa session.
I still remark every fall and spring on how his coat changes color. After 10 years you would think I would stop marveling at a brown coat turning red-orange.
T-man goes from shinny black to dull brown.
My horse friends put it down to the sun fading the coat color, in fact there are shelves in tack stores full of anti-fade products, now. But it just doesn’t sit right with me.
I had a black lab and he was just as black in September after spending every summer afternoon on the porch. But, I could hasten his seasonal shed by pulling out his “brown” tufts of hair. Those were the tufts that where already released from his skin and about to make their way to my carpet. His coat would be black except for those brown tufts ready to roll away.
This makes me wonder about the horses, if the color change isn’t related to the release of the hair shaft in preparation of the old coat sloughing off and the new one growing in. I’ll bet there is a scientist out there with the answer, how would a Google search find him?
Hillary Pooley’s book, “Your Horse’s Skin,” shows some detailed diagrams of the horse’s hair follicle. The hair shaft grows out of the hair follicle and, despite its tiny nature, it is surrounded by a sweat gland (yup, every single hairshaft), a sebaceous gland and an erector muscle called the arrector pili muscle. That’s the little muscle that makes their hair stand on edge in the cold or lie flat in the heat.
When they change their coats the new hair follicle pushes out the old. Just using some human logic (which admittedly doesn’t always hold for animals), the old hair has to release its attachment to the arrector pili muscle, in fact its attachment to the entire follicle.
I play with this idea because Moke’s coat color doesn’t change until just a few weeks before I start to see the first hairs being shed.
So when his coat changes from brown to red-orange I’m wondering if those hair shafts have already been cut off from life support, no longer attached to the arrector pili and just waiting to be pushed out of the way by the upcoming new hair shaft.
The hair is reflecting the light spectrum that hits it. That’s why we see any color at all. And we’ve all seen subtle changes in color when the angle of the light source changes. So if the hair shaft isn’t attached to anything and it’s just “hanging in there,” couldn’t that affect the reflective nature and its color?
Or maybe it is just the sun fading the coat. But then how do I explain the three different colors during three different clippings. It’s April and the bottom trace clip shows his new dark brown coat coming in. The second lighter red-orange is his undercoat (vellus hairs), left over from his trace clip last October. And the top color is his full winter coat with guard hairs in tact.
Whatever the reason, it always provides opportunities to talk about my little guys when people stop to ask me about the odd, striped coloring of my horse. A bit of a tie-dyed pony for sure.