The Pale Medicine Horse

Black Elk says:

Next they sang:

  • Where you are always facing an elk nation will appear
  • May you behold them
  • A horse nation will appear
  • An elk nation will appear
  • May you behold!

The four buckskin horse riders were painted yellow with black lightning streaks

Revelations says:

  • I heard the being saying ‘Come’
  • and Behold! a pale horse came out
  • The Divinity who was riding him,
  • his name was Death


I have found numerous and  lengthy discussions about the Greek word used to describe Death’s horse in Revelations looking at every possible interpretation except the obvious one. Pale yellow is actually a perfectly legitimate description of a horse’s coat color. As a horse person, my context is very different  from most biblical scholars, although my sources are perhaps equally biased. I found that most of the written material available in English about horse breeding from the Middle East is by Europeans and about Arabian horses. Visually a horse with a yellow coat may be a buckskin with a black mane and tail, or a palomino with a white mane and tail. There are also truly pale horses with pink skin, blue eyes, and near white coats. None of the founding Arabian stock were Pale Horses though, and the color is still discouraged in registered Arabians. However, one of the most basic and widespread precepts in horse breeding is that you do not ever sell your best stock to any one. And a really good salesman will make sure that his buyers think they are getting the best possible deal, especially when there is something he wants to hold back.

It was also serendipitous that European buyers and breeders were not interested in horses that Bedouin breeders labeled as  ”gypsies’. As a horse breeder my interpretation is that the term gypsy is descriptive, not derogatory. Middle Eastern horse breeders kept detailed oral histories of their horses’ qualities and lineages and what they are actually saying is that this coloring is gypsy-like and unpredictable.They knew from pragmatic experience that Pale Horses can be difficult to breed for as the offspring of Pale Horses may be almost any color.  It is also nearly impossible to completely breed out, as it may suddenly appear even though both parents have apparently been reds or blacks for generations.  Recently it has been shown that there are several different genes that may be involved in producing Pale Horses.

Basic horse coats are:

  • Dominant Black (B/B)
  • Recessive Red (r/r)

They can be diluted to yellow with:

  • buckskin or dun (D/D), a simple dominant,
  • cream (Cr/Cr), an incomplete dominant
  • pearl (prl/prl), a recessive gene.

So genetically, Pale Horses may be:

  • Buckskins (D/D) or (D/d) on a black coat  (B/B  or B/r) having a yellow body and a black mane and tail 
  • Duns  (D/D or D/d) on a red coat (r/r) having a yellow body with a darker reddish mane and tail
  • Palominos having a yellow coat and a white mane and tail result from one cream (Cr/cr) on a red coat
  • Cremellos with blue eyes, pink skin and creamy white coats result from true cream (Cr/Cr)  on a red coat.
  • Perlinos with blue eyes, pink skin and pearly white coats are both recessive pearl (prl/prl) genes on a black coat.
  • BUT some individuals are  any of a number of combinations of dun, cream and pearl on any combination of red and black  (d/d plus  Cr/cr plus PRL/prl on B/r) for example.

And , just to keep breeders on their toes:

  • A Clay-bank or apricot colored horse may either have a red coat and carry the perlino (r/r plus prl/prl ) genes
  • or have a black coat and carry the cremello ( B/B or B/r plus Cr/Cr ) genes
  • Both red and black horses can carry one pearl (PRL/prl) without it changing their appearance.
  • A black horse may  carry one cream  (Cr/cr), as it will not change their appearance

While on a black horse similar colors may come from completely different genes:

  • Flaxen sorrels and chocolate palominos, reddish or brown horses with  light manes and tails, are actually black horses carrying one of a completely different set of dominant genes, the  (Z/z) silver dappling gene.
  • A (Z/Z) horse will appear silvery white with black skin and dark eyes if the base coat is black
  • Bay horses with red or brown bodies and  black  manes and tails carry the Agouti gene, another incomplete dominant. Researchers label three forms, A, At, and a
  • Buckskin horses may carry the Agouti gene as well as the Dun gene.
  • Different shades of bay and buckskin may arise from  various combinations of  Cr/cr, PRL/prl, D/d ,  and A/a, A/At or At/a  on a base coat that is either B/B or  B/r

Red horses may carry other genes without showing them:

  • red horses  may carry both dominant silver dapple  (Z/Z) genes as it will not change its appearance.
  • red horses will not show any form of the bay Agouti gene either, even if they are carrying both copies

So yes, the Pale Horse is genetically an unpredictable gypsy.  Black Elk speaks only of buckskins, which are simple dominants genetically. The Plains people’s  observations showed them that when both parents are  buckskin, the foal will be buckskin 75% of the time. His people had only had horses for a few generations while the authors of Revelations and the desert horse breeders had thousands of generations of observation to work from.

Looking for contemporary remnants  of Pale Horses in my part of the world, I found it fascinating that the one of the largest and most consistent gene-pools of buckskin horses among the living lineages of Spanish Mustangs  comes from the Bookcliff wilderness near the Four Corners.  Monty Holbrook was a mustanger who caught his horses there in the early 1920’s, including a couple of stallions he appropriately named Buckshot and Ute. That country is still  home  to the  Ute and Apache peoples and like the Bedouin, their horses were primarily used for racing and raiding.   This is not such a great coincidence given that the Comancheros traded horses and mysteries with the all the Plains  horse tribes. Pale Horses may be held in special regard for these pursuits because they blend into the desert colors so well.  Camouflage is very handy when raiding one’s neighbors, and Revelations does tell us that Death on his Pale Horse comes like a thief in the night.

I have had to do some serious searching and surmising to put together a possible mythology for the qualities of the Pale Horse  and his rider. I ended up with San Lorenzo or St Lawrence, who is one of the early patron saints of horses and horsemen. A Spaniard who studied in Saragoza, one of the most renowned centers of learning at the time, he was appointed one of the seven deacons of the Catholic church.  He was martyred in 258 ad because when asked to turn over the wealth of his church to Rome, he gave away all the money to the poor, sick, blind, crippled, needy , the widows and the consecrated virgins declaring that they were the true treasure of the church.

He was martyred on a gridiron which didn’t make much sense to me until I thought of the cubical city in Revelations.. One of the great recurrent heresies the Catholic Church represses is the idea that the suffering of Christ is our own personal limitations to the material world of the five senses. The cubical city is our body, unfolded it becomes the cross of the crucifixion (and Saint Lawrence’s gridiron)  while the five nails are our five senses. Of this stage, Revelations declares:

  • you have the name that you are alive,
  • but you are a dead man
  • Become awakened from the dead
  • and strengthen the remaining affections that are on the point of dying

The Apocalypse is literally translated as unveiling. So our resurrection or awakening comes when we are no longer limited to the material world of those five senses but see through the veil of matter to the divine in all things. The genetics of the Pale Horse can be seen as a  metaphor for this unveiling. His coat may be hidden under the more ordinary colors for generations, but on occasion bursts forth in all its clear and golden glory.

As an early Robin Hood type, Saint Lawrence is an appropriate Saint for the desert raider’s desired redistribution of wealth. Among the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico he may be called ‘he who brings the rain’ , and there are actually European tales of farmers refusing to give offerings to him at harvest time because they say that, much like Black Elk’s thunder beings, he brings the storms and the  storm riders that destroy their crops. Saint Lawrence’s Feast Day is August 1oth, a day long dedicated to the sanctity of the summer sun and Lawrence means  crowned with laurel, like the Greek sun god Apollo.  His story emphasizes that he enjoyed being roasted and even demanded to be turned when one side was done. So when Revelations tells us that it is  he who has authority over fire that declares it is time to harvest the grapes from the Earth’s vine and tread them into wine, I look to St Lawrence.

His heresy continues as it is also said that he took the Holy Grail  that Jesus drank his wine from to the cathedral at Valencia, Spain where it can still be seen and prayed to. But I think I will tackle him and the Scarlet Virgin with their cups in another post.

(click for the red medicine horse or go back to the beginning)

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