Writing Horses Part IV

In this final post, I’m going to talk about the different kinds of equines as well as terms for the various sexes, and how each is most commonly utilized.

There are seven or eight living species of Equus, but I’m only going to talk about the more general terms. If you need more detail than this, you need to research the topic. There are horses, donkeys (asses) and zebras. Though occasionally trained, zebras don’t make very good pets or work animals, so I’m not going cover them. Instead, I am going to talk about mules, a horse-donkey hybrid.

First, horses. Everyone is pretty familiar with horses and what they look like. For the sake of comparison, notice that they have smaller ears, and long strands of hair over their entire tail.

Tera and Tanqa horses

Donkeys are generally smaller than horses. They have long ears, and their tail only has the longer strands of hair on the second half. The correct term for donkey is ass, and burros are also donkeys. You can look up the various breeds and their details if you need to know more about that.

donkey tail


‘Mule’ is the common term for a horse-donkey hybrid, though technically it is specifically for a male donkey and female horse. If it’s a male horse and female donkey, it’s a hinny. There are few times you should need to get into the lineage of an animal in your fiction, though. If you need it (or are curious) there are some differences between a mule and hinny. For the sake of this post, though, a mule has long ears like a donkey, but a tail more like a horse. They are also typically bigger than donkeys.

bay mule


Now when it comes to horses and ponies, there are some differences. Ponies are not baby horses, they are a different class of the species. Generally, ponies are smaller than horses, but there are differences beyond that, and I’ll touch on a few of those, because this is a great example of how using one term in the wrong context can enrage an equestrian reader. Typically, horses are anything over 14.2 hands (the unit of measure for horses), and ponies anything under that hight. There are some breeds, though that are not held to that rule. Differences in confirmation help narrow down what is a pony and what is a horse. There are specifics, but generally, ponies are stockier, and even when they’re taller, their legs are shorter in comparison to their body, than with horses. This is why miniature horses are different from ponies, even though they are usually smaller.
Ponies are typically reserved for children, have a (well earned) reputation as being mischief-makers, and are often more stubborn.
Draft horses are another type of horse, they’re heavier, generally taller (though, again, this isn’t a firm rule), and well suited for pulling work. They are also often not as smooth to ride (some breeds are more suited for riding than others).

black draft Halterstandingshotarabianone

I2E by colour-science.com
I2E by colour-science.com

The black horse is a draft, the bay (the brown with the black mane and tail) is a ‘light’ horse, and the dapple grey is a pony.

horse size comparison

The above image will give you a rough estimate for comparison, but remember there is a lot of overlapping in height.

Now, I’ll explain why the terms ‘stallion’ and ‘gelding’ are not interchangeable.
Here are the basic terms for horse sexes. A mare is an adult female, a stallion is an adult intact male, and a gelding is a male that has been castrated (the term for horses is ‘gelded’). A baby horse of either sex is called a foal. A colt is a male foal, and a filly is a female foal.
There are some differences in appearance between a stallion and gelding, stallions tend to be more muscular, and geldings taller. Their behavior is the important thing, though. Geldings are considered the ideal working and riding horse. They are considered to be mellow, steady, and dependable. Geldings are less particular about stable and travel mates.
Stallions are not horses just anyone hops up on. They require a lot more training to work with than other horses, and they require a much more skilled and confident rider. They cannot be easily mixed with other stallions or with mares. People do ride them, but unless you have a specific reason for someone riding a stallion (and if so, you should learn a bit about that), a gelding is the usual choice.
Mares have a reputation of being moody. Aside from when they’re in heat (about one week a month) an individual mare’s mood doesn’t fluctuate much, but it is harder to generalize mares as a whole. They are more particular about other horses they are around and (because in the wild, mares are the actual herd leaders) they are less tolerant of behavior they don’t like–from both riders and other horses. They are used regularly in travel, but a gelding is preferable in most instances.

I’ve had a few people ask about this, so I’m going to go over the ages of horses. Babies are called foals up until weaning (usually around 6 months). Then they become ‘weanlings’. Yearlings, are one year olds, then they are referred to by the year (two year olds, three year olds, etc) up through four years. Usually, after that there is no reference to age. Most horses are broken to ride at two years old. Some breeds, like Arabians, they prefer to wait until three years.
The most common method for aging a horse is looking at it’s teeth, and I’ll include a chart for those curious on how to do that, but I have seen experts argue over the age of a horse more often than agree by looking at the teeth.



I think this covers all the basics for horses in fiction. I hope some have found it helpful for your works. Generally, these are all things that can be safely left out of a story, but including the correct term here or there can enrich the story. Adding the wrong term, though, can do more harm than good, pulling readers that know out of the story (I wrote about a writer’s responsibility to allow the reader to suspend their disbelief here).
I always enjoy talking about horses, so if anyone has any questions about anything I’ve covered, or anything I haven’t covered, I am more than happy to answer those questions, offer research material, and go into more detail on anything.


Writing Horses Part III

Here were are with the next piece on the basics of writing about horses without giving away that you’ve never stepped foot into a barn and have no idea what hay smells like (it smells wonderful, especially mixed in with fresh pine shavings). I was going to conclude the series with this one, but I’m breaking this post into two, so they’re shorter.

Last time I talked about behavior, and the first post was basic anatomy and such. This time I’m going to talk about travel.

First, it helps to understand that horses are herd animals and prey animals. Horses do not do well without another herd animal, preferably another horse, but cows, goats, and other equines work as well. So while horses can get comfortable riding out alone during the day, when they’re not working, it’s harder for them to be alone, and horses that are kept alone will often develop psychological problems.
When travel by horse is the norm, everywhere designed for people to stop included a place for horses. The basics of stabling and feeding horses has not really changed much. Box stalls, hay and some form of feed such as oats. When people camped, horses were often hobbled or picketed (if you’ve read the Little House books, you might remember that). Hobbles are a bit like handcuffs on horses, and they’ve been used since at least the ancient Egyptians. hobbles.jpg

There are a few ways to picket horses. You can have a central post or peg usually on the ground with a long rope tied to the horse (at the face, neck, or even one leg). Or you can have a line strung between two things with a horse or horses tied to it. That line can be at varying levels, if it’s overhead, it’s called a high line. If your work requires more specific information, you should research the pros and cons of each.

SI Exif
SI Exif

picketing w legpicketline

The important thing is that horses eat at rest. And lay down (part of the problem with having a horse alone is that they don’t feel comfortable laying down and while horses will doze standing, they do need a few hours of deeper sleep).

This brings me to the next topic–horses are grazers. They are designed to eat throughout the day and will get sick if they are unable to. When people ride all day, the horses are snagging bites of leaves, bushes and grass that they pass. Riders allow horses 3-5 minutes to graze when they come across open grass if they’re riding all day. This is the time riders stretch, eat, relieve themselves, etc. Horses do not charge ahead or plod along mechanically for hours on end.

And that leads into horse gaits. Horses walk, trot, canter, and gallop (the lope is a slower, more leisurely version of the canter, and the biggest difference is in the riding discipline– canter is english, lope is western–most instances you can use them interchangeably)

The walk is a four-beat gait and I think everyone can distinguish a walk. Horses walk about four miles an hour.

The trot is a two-beat gait, and this is the working gait. Horses can only canter and gallop for short periods, assuming they’re fit, they can trot all day. There is a wide variation in speed, but eight miles an hour is average. Unless it’s very slow, riders will usually do what is called ‘posting’ to the trot where they rise out of the saddle and sit back down (in a controlled manner) to the one-two beat (one-up, two-down). Trying to sit to anything but the very slow trot is incredibly uncomfortable for both horse and rider. I have no personal experience, but I am told it’s even worse if you’re male.


The other option is to raise your bottom out of the saddle completely. It takes a lot of leg strength, but anyone who rides regularly will have that, and it is actually a resting position from hours of posting the trot.

endurance 2 point

The canter is a three-beat gait and can also over a range of speeds, the average, though, is 12 miles per hour. Remember, this is not something they can keep up for a long time.

The gallop is a four-beat gait. It’s the fastest, around 25-30 miles per hour, and is not usually sustained for more than a mile or two. Thoroughbreds are rarely raced further than a mile in a half, though some places race Arabians two and a half miles. At a slower gallop, fit horses can go a bit longer before needing a rest.

There are quite a few un-natural gaits like pacing, the running walk, or the rack. If you want to use something like this, you are going to need to research the breed and how much of that gait is bred into that breed vs trained into it.
Exceptions on speed include horses that harness race at the trot, and American Quarter Horses who can sprint the quarter mile at record-breaking speeds.

The next post, and last post will talk about the differences between mules, donkeys, and horses, and why you cannot refer to a pony as a ‘baby horse’.

Writing Horses, Part II

In my last post, I went over the basics of what horses and their tack looks like. This time, I’m going to talk about behaviors. In most stories, horses aren’t something you need to spend a lot of time on, and trying to incorporate all this information is likely to end up as an info dump, but when you do want to add in a detail here and there, please, make it accurate. There are equestrians everywhere who love to read, and nothing makes our blood  boil like reading about a horse growling (update: horses do not roar in fury, either).

Horse body language is pretty complex, so I’m going to stay with the very basics (and what I see written about incorrectly most often).
Pinning the ears. Horses only do this when they’re really angry. It’s a warning that people and other horses need to take seriously, it is often a precursor to some kind of unpleasant action. Horses will flick their ears back to listen to a rider, but pinning or flattening the ears is a specific gesture with specific meaning.


The bay horse has pinned ears and is preparing to kick something/someone, the grey is just listening or focusing on the rider.

‘Striking’ is the term for when a horse uses their front legs, ‘kicking’ is specifically for the back legs. Striking is a much more aggressive action. Horses will often kick defensively, striking is only offensive.

horse kickhorse striking
Biting is the most aggressive act a horse can do. They will lip, nibble, nip, and chew for obnoxious, curious, and playful reasons, but a teeth-bared bite is not common, and very aggressive. Most often it’s something you see between horses, or when chasing off a predator. People are bitten on occasion, and horses that bite people are dangerous for people to be around. It can be unnerving to see that kind of aggression in an animal like a horse.

Rearing is also not something horses do often. They’re not very stable on their back legs, and they’re not going to do it without a specific reason. They’re even less stable with a rider on their back, and unless both horse and rider are trained to do this, the horse will often fall backward onto the rider (I have a friend who experienced this and is lucky she wasn’t killed).


Bucking is…a little interesting. The technicalities of it are actually a little disputed in the horse community. For the sake of writing pretty much anything that is not ‘The Technicalities of the Buck’, bucking can be considered any time a horse throws it’s back or back-end into the air. It’s the usual form of rider-removal or attempted rider-removal. A buck might be dropping the head and jumping off all four legs, it may be only throwing up the back legs. Sometimes it is kicking out with back legs while the head is up. If you are looking for some variety in the way you write about this action, smaller bucks, and little kicks are sometimes called ‘crow hopping’ This is more a protest than earnest attempt to unseat the rider, sometimes it’s playful and something horses do when they’re ‘feeling their oats’.

V0048757 A horse rearing and bucking. Photogravure after Eadweard Muy
V0048757 A horse rearing and bucking. Photogravure after Eadweard Muy Credit: Wellcome Library, London.http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The credit says this image is of a horse, it’s mule (but I’ll save that for another post). It’s a great image of all the different movements involved. The last movement on the bottom right is a great example of a little crow-hop.

The last thing I wanted to talk about was vocalizations. Horses whinny, neigh, nicker, squeal, snort, sneeze, and cough. The do not growl. Horses never, NEVER growl–I cannot stress this enough.
Whinny and neigh can be used interchangeably. It’s the loud long sound you hear from them. They do it when they are calling out to other horses and their food if they’re on anything besides pasture. A nicker is a quiet kind of rumbly sound that some also use for feed time when they’re about to get their bucket. They’ll also do it in anticipation of a favorite treat, when talking to their foal/mother, and during the flirting/breeding process. A squeal is usually accompanied by a kick or strike, or it serves as a warning for those actions. It’s usually only used with other horses though, not people.
Coughs and sneezes happen for the same reason they happen with us. A snort is often an alert to something. A horse will pull up and snort when they see something alarming or suspicious that is too far away for them need to decide about flight or fight.
Horses do not vocalize in pain. They don’t vocalize in fear, either. A snort is the only alarm they’ll give, otherwise, as prey animals, horses stay quiet when they’re vulnerable. (The exception to this is if they are alone and calling for their herd.) Mostly, horses talk to each other and to their feed. They also talk to people when that person is feeding them, or they think they’re supposed to be feeding them.

Update: Apparently, there are some horse information blogs that describe a “roaring” sound from angry stallions. No. Horses do not roar. Not only do horses not roar, but the term ‘roaring’ in relation to horses is specifically used to describe the sound of larynx disfunction in tall horses that requires surgery to fix.
The closest thing I could come up with is that someone was attempting to describe the neigh or squeal of a deep-voiced horse. Just like people, horses have different voices. A higher voice is more common, but there are some with a deeper voice, and some with a surprisingly high voice. My dainty grey mare had a surprisingly deep voice, and I’ve seen some huge geldings with comically high voices. But regardless of where an individual horse falls on the vocal range, it’s still a neigh or squeal–given the context, I think they were describing a squeal.

A few last oddities about horses. Horses are not able to throw up or otherwise regurgitate. Once they swallow something, that’s it. Yawning is a passive-aggressive act, not about being sleepy. They will doze on their feet, but horses do need a few good hours of deeper sleep where they can lay down to really be rested.

After getting such great feedback and interest in the first post, in the final posts I’ll address travel, like what do riders do with their horses when they’ve ridden all day and stopped for the night. Then, why the terms stallion and gelding are no more interchangeable than the uses of each one, and why mules, donkeys, horses, and ponies are not the same thing.


Writing Horses When You’re Not an Equestrian, Part I

I’ve been working on horse farms since I was ten, and was riding for years before that. I spent every waking moment I was not at school out at barns. I read about horses, collected shelves of toys and figurines, covered my walls in pictures of them–I was one of those horse-crazy girls people warn parents and boys about.

As my reading branched out from all things horses, one of the my biggest pet peeves was people writing about horses and getting it wrong. I spent a few years guiding trail rides for people that came out from D.C. on the weekends, so I’m used to a lot of strange misconceptions about horses. However, as a writer, I think authors need to be knowledgeable on the things they are going to write about–especially since a lot of the incorrect information I’ve come across could have been left out entirely with no harm. It is always better to leave out information in those instances than include the wrong things.


First, lets look at horse colors. Color words are fine–with one exception. Horses are rarely white. A white horse is a horse that has white hair over pink skin. That means the skin visible around their eyes and on their muzzle is all pink. It looks a little weird, it’s not very common, and it’s prone to a lot of health issues, particularly sunburn. Usually when you see a horse with white hair, it’s over black skin and that is called a grey. There are many shades of grey, but unless it’s pink skin, it’s grey.
If you’re going to get more specific about a horse’s color, saying ‘dapple grey’ or ‘roan’ or ‘chestnut’ make sure you know what you’re saying.
I’m using the introductory images I use for students, so if you want to delve more into things like paint/pinto/skewbald/piebald, you should research those colorations because they get more complex.

pandori_aura_equine___color_chart_by_carlmoon-d60uz8mBefore you go crazy with all the interesting, exotic looking colors you come across, here is something to give you an idea how common the different colors are. If you’re going to give your horse a specific breed, it’s worth taking a quick look to see what is common for different breeds.



The next part of coloration is markings. Since I am sticking with the basics, this doesn’t go into the various markings on piebald/skewbald horses.

Points_of_a_horseNext, we’ll look at the the basic parts of a horse. Riding students and horse owners have to memorize these, but an author just needs to make sure they aren’t misusing terms. The head, body, and joints are where I see most mistakes. Note the the front leg has a knee and an elbow. The back leg has a stifle and a hock.



Here is a quick look at tack–which is the term for what you put on a horse when you ride it. This is an english saddle. There are some differences with a western saddle and side saddle.



6abd767611844ec15ec208e3ab6dcddaParts of a Sidesaddle.jpg


I’m not suggesting anyone shove info dumps or obscure terms into their stories, just that if you do decide to include details, make sure they’re accurate.

I’ll write next time about basic horse behaviors that are often misrepresented.

If anyone would like more in-depth information, I always love talking horses!