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.
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.
‘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.
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).
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.
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.