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Domestic Horse
Conservation status: Domesticated

Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Perissodactyla
Family: Equidae
Genus: Equus
Species: E. caballus
Equus caballus
Linnaeus, 1758

The horse (Equus caballus or Equus ferus caballus) is a sizeable ungulate mammal, one of ten modern species of the genus Equus. Horses have long been one of the most economically important domesticated animals, and have played an important role in the transport of people and cargo for thousands of years. Most notably, horses can be ridden by a person perched on a saddle attached to the animal, and are also widely harnessed to pull objects like wheeled vehicles or plows. In some human cultures, horses are also widely used as a source of food. Though isolated domestication may have occurred as early as 4500 BC, clear evidence of widespread use by humans dates to no earlier than 2000 BC, as evidenced by the Sintashta chariot burials, thus firmly establishing the domestication of the horse. There are many types of horses. Some are very well known for certain things. Thoroughbreds are known for being race horses while no one above fifty pounds can ride a miniature horse.

Until the middle of the 20th century, armies used horses extensively in warfare; soldiers still refer to the groups of machines that have replaced horses on the battlefield as " cavalry" units, and sometimes preserve traditional horse-oriented names for military units ( Lord Strathcona's Horse).

Domestication of the horse and surviving wild species

The earliest evidence for the domestication of the horse comes from Central Asia and dates to approximately 4,000 BCE. Competing theories exist as to the time and place of initial domestication. Wild species continued to survive into historic times. For example, the Forest Horse (Equus ferus silvaticus, also called the Diluvial Horse) is thought to have evolved into Equus ferus germanicus, and may have contributed to the development of the heavy horses of northern Europe, such as Ardennais.

The tarpan, Equus ferus ferus, became extinct in 1880. Its genetic line is lost, but its phenotype has been recreated by a " breeding back" process, in which living domesticated horses with primitive features were repeatedly interbred. Thanks to the efforts of the brothers Lutz Heck (director of the Berlin zoo) and Heinz Heck (director of Tierpark Munich Hellabrunn), the resulting Wild Polish Horse or Konik more closely resembles the tarpan than any other living horse.

Horse's profile, Australia
Horse's profile, Australia

Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), a rare Asian species, is the only true wild horse alive today. Mongolians know it as the taki, while the Kirghiz people call it a kirtag. Small wild breeding populations of this animal exist in Mongolia. [1]

Wild vs. feral horses

Wild animals, whose ancestors have never undergone domestication, are distinct from feral animals, who had domesticated ancestors but now live in the wild. Several populations of feral horses exist, including those in the West of the United States and Canada (often called " mustangs") and in parts of Australia (" brumbies") and New Zealand (" Kaimanawa horses"). Isolated feral populations are often named for their geographic location; in Namiba feral animals known as Namib Desert Horses live in the desert, while the Sable Island Horses are resident on Sable Island, Canada. Feral horses may provide useful insights into the behaviour of ancestral wild horses.

The Icelandic horse ( pony-sized but called a horse) provides an opportunity to compare contemporary and historical breed appearances and behaviour. Introduced by the Vikings into Iceland, Icelandic horses did not subsequently undergo the intensive selective breeding that took place in the rest of Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, and consequently bear a closer resemblance to pre-Medieval breeds. The Icelandic horse has a four-beat gait called the " tölt", which equates to the rack exhibited by several American gaited breeds.

Other modern equids

Other members of the horse family include zebras, donkeys, and hemionids. The Donkey, Burro or Domestic Ass, Equus asinus, like the horse, has many breeds. A mule is a hybrid of a male ass and a mare and is infertile. A hinny is the less common hybrid of a female ass and a stallion. Recently breeders have begun crossing various species of zebra with mares or female asses to produce "zebra mules"—zorses and zonkeys (also called zedonks). This will probably remain a novelty hybrid as these individuals tend to inherit some of the nervous, difficult nature of their zebra parent.

Full species list:

  • Domesticated Horse (Equus caballus)
  • Wild Horse (Equus ferus)
    • Tarpan (Equus ferus ferus) ( extinct)
    • Przewalski's Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii)
  • Domesticated Donkey (Equus asinus)
  • Wild Ass (Equus africanus)
  • Onager (Equus hemionus)
  • Kiang (Equus kiang)
  • Cape Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra)
  • Hartmann's Mountain Zebra (Equus hartmannae)
  • Plains Zebra (Equus quagga)
  • Grevy's Zebra (Equus grevyi)

Evolution of the horse

Eohippus, the ancestor of all modern horses, was only 20cm (0.6 feet) in height
Eohippus, the ancestor of all modern horses, was only 20cm (0.6 feet) in height

All equids are part of the family Equidae, which dates back approximately 54 million years to the Eocene period. Horses and other equids are odd-toed ungulates of the order Perissodactyla, a relatively ancient group of browsing and grazing animals that first arose less than 10 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct. Perissodactyls were the dominant group of large terrestrial browsing animals until the Miocene (about 20 million years ago), when even-toed ungulates, with stomachs better adapted to grass digestion, began to outcompete them. At one time there were twelve families of odd-toed ungulates, though today only three survive; tapirs and rhinoceroses are the closest living relatives of the modern horse. Horses are believed by scientists to have first evolved in what is now North America.

One of the first true horse species was the tiny Hyracotherium, also known as eohippus, "the dawn horse". In the course of about 5 million years, this early equid evolved into the Orohippus. The vestiges of the 1st and 2nd toes vanished, but the additon of a new "grinding" tooth was significant in that it signalled a transition to improved browsing of tougher plant material. This would allowing grazing not just leafy plants but plains grasses. Their primary food source could transition from leaf-eating forest-dwellers to grass-eating inhabitants of the Great Plains.

Horse evolution was characterized by a reduction in the number of toes, from 5 per foot, to 3 per foot, to only 1 toe per foot (late Myocine 5.3 million years ago). The genus Equus, to which all living equids belong, evolved a few million years ago. Examples of extinct horse genera include: Propalaeotherium, Mesohippus, Miohippus, Orohippus, Pliohippus, Anchitherium, Merychippus, Parahippus, Hipparion and Hippidion.

Horse behaviour

Gray Horse
Gray Horse

Horses are prey animals with flight or fight instinct. Their first response to threat is to flee, although they are known to stand their ground and defend in cases where less capable horses would be left exposed, such as when a foal would be threatened. Horse people commonly say that inside every domestic horse is a wild horse. Through selective breeding, some horses have been made more docile, but most sport horse breeds are based on the principle of preserving the natural qualities of bravery, honesty, and athleticism that existed in horses that were taken from wild herds hundreds of years ago.

Horses are highly social and intelligent herd animals. Like many other herd animals, their soceity is derived, or has evolved from survival instincts. At the center of the herd is the alpha or dominant mare. The center of the herd is the safest because it is further away from predators than any other part. The edge of the herd is where the lowest on the social order are found. Punishment is delivered in the form of expulsion from the herd on a temporary or even permanent basis.

Herds are made up of mares, foals and immature horses of both sexes. Survival of the species dictates that females and foals are of primary importance, because they give and nurture life. Only a few males are needed--on a very temporary basis--to continue the species. The herd of twenty mares could produce twenty foals in one year. They only need one or more stallions to impregnate all of them.

When colts become mature stallions they leave to roam in small bachelor herds. They are no longer welcome in the herd. Some of these horses may battle for the privilege of the most dangerous positiion in the equine world: dominant stallion.

The dominant stallion lives in the most dangerous and tenuous position in the equine world. He lives on the periphery of the herd, exposed to predators and other bachelors who will fight him for that role. In stark contrast to the mythology of the stallion and his (ownership implied) harem, he has no value to the herd. He is totally dispensable since he is easily replaced. The male dominance heirarchy insures an immediate replacement by a strong and healthy successor at any time.

Horses graze in a field near London, England
Horses graze in a field near London, England

The ability for man to work in cooperation with the horse is based on the strong social bonds that horses have with each other. Horses do not like to be separated from the herd, because to be alone is to be exposed to predators on all sides. Horse training principles are based upon having the horse accept a person as the dominant herd member, not through force, but by virtue of ability and confidence. It is those attributes that are highly valued because they point the way to survival. A horse that is afraid more than necessary will expend energy needlessly and may not be able to escape when the threat is real. In pastures, it is the rule that horses tend to gravitate around the most mature and confident members.

As with many animals that live in large groups, establishment of a stable hierarchy is important to smooth group functioning. Contention for dominance can be risky since one well placed kick to a leg could cripple another horse to such an extent that it would be defenseless, exposed, and possibly unable to get to water, and bites can cause serious damage as well. Survival dictates that the herd members ultimately cooperate and stick together. The dominant mare exercises control over herd members to moderate aggressive behaviour. Providing that they do not regard humans as they would regard predators, horses will treat humans in much the same way that they treat other horses. As a result, horses will be willing to associate with humans in a cooperative way, but they may also challenge humans for dominance in the pasture. Humans who train horses must teach them that aggressive acts toward humans will meet with sure but measured and appropriate retaliation. Once horses have been deterred from kicking and biting humans to secure dominance over them, a cooperative relationship can be maintained. However, humans sometimes abuse horses. Abusing horses can be very dangerous to humans because the abused horse may eventually cease treating humans as members of their group and instead treat them as predators. Horse bites that go beyond a herd-friendly nip (actually a positive social communication) can sever not only fingers but arms and even legs. Horse kicks can be deadly. Ordinarily, horses are very forgiving of human misbehavior, but when the balance tips a horse can be a deadly enemy. Rehabilitation of a horse that has been forced to aggressively defend itself against some humans can be very difficult and risky. (See John Solomon Rarey.)

Specialized vocabulary

Because horses and humans have lived and worked together for thousands of years, an extensive specialized vocabulary has arisen to describe virtually every horse behavioral and anatomical characteristic with a high degree of precision.

The English-speaking world measures the height of horses in hands. One hand is defined in British law as 101.6 mm, a figure derived from the previous measure of 4 Imperial inches. Horse height is measured at the highest point of an animal's withers. Perhaps because of extensive selective breeding, modern adult horses vary widely in size, ranging from miniature horses measuring 5 hands (0.5 m) to draft animals measuring 19 hands (1.8 m) or more. By convention, 15.2 hh means 15 hands, 2 inches (1.57 m) in height.

Horses vs. ponies

Usually, size alone marks the difference between horses and ponies. The threshold is 14.2 hh (1.47 m) for an adult. Below the threshold an animal is a pony, while above the threshold it is a horse. Thus normal variations can mean that a horse stallion and horse mare can become the parents of an adult pony. However, a distinct set of characteristic pony traits, developed in northwest Europe and further evolved in the British Isles, make it less clear whether it is more appropriate to use the word "pony" to describe a size or a type. Many people consider the Shetland pony as the archetypal pony, as its proportions are so different from those of horses. Several small breeds are referred to as "horses" or "ponies" interchangeably, including the Icelandic, Fjord, and Caspian types. Breeders of miniature horses favor that name because they strive to reproduce horse-like attributes in a much smaller animal, even though their horses undeniably descend from ponies.

Words for gaits

All horses move naturally with four basic gaits; these are referred to as the walk, the trot/jog, the canter/lope ("canter" in English riding, "lope" in Western), and the gallop.

The walk

A walk is a "four-beat" lateral gait in which a horse must have three feet on the ground and only one foot in the air at any time. The walking horse will lift first a hind leg, then the foreleg on the same side, then the remaining hind leg, then the foreleg on the same side. A rider on a trained horse gently squeezes the sides of the animal and releases the pressure on its reins in order to initiate a walk from a stationary position. To initiate a walk when a horse is trotting, the rider gently applies pressure on the reins.

The trot/jog

A trot is a "two beat" diagonal gait in which a foreleg and opposite hindleg (often called "diagonals") touch the ground at the same time. In this gait, each leg bears weight separately, making it ideal to check for lameness or for stiffness in the joints. A rider on a walking horse initiates a trot by reducing tautness on the reins and applying more leg pressure. There are two types of trot a rider can perform; these are called posting trot, in which the rider stands up slightly in the saddle each time the animal's outside front leg goes forward, and sitting trot, in which the rider sits in the saddle and matches the horse's movement.

The canter/lope

A canter is a "three beat" gait in which a foreleg and opposite hindleg strike the ground together, and the other two legs strike separately. A cantering horse will first stride off with the outside hind leg, then the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside front leg, and finally a period of suspension in which all four legs are off the ground. the rhythm should be 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc. When cantering in a straight line, it does not usually matter which foreleg (or leading leg) goes first, but both leads should receive equal practice time, as otherwise the horse may become "one-sided" or develop a reluctance to canter on a specific lead. In the arena, the horse should canter on the inside lead. In making a fairly tight turn, the inside leg (the one nearest to the center of the turn) should lead, as this prevents the horse from "falling in". To get a horse to canter on the correct leg from trot, one must go into sitting trot, place their outside leg slightly behind the girth and squeeze with the inside leg. To get a horse to canter from gallop, one must alter the position of the body slightly back in the saddle, then you must place the outside leg behind the girth to allow the horse to canter on the correct leg, and apply pressure on the reins. Also called "lope" when riding in a Western show class. The canter is not a natural gait, but a restrained form of a gallop.

The gallop

At the gallop, with all four feet off the ground
At the gallop, with all four feet off the ground

The gallop is another "four beat" gait which follows a similar progression to the canter, except the two paired legs land separately, the hind leg landing slightly before the foreleg. The gallop also involves having a leading leg. In turning at a very rapid rate, it is even more important that the horse use the appropriate lead, leading with the left leg if making a left turn, and the right leg if making a right turn, since the faster the turn the more the horse needs to lean into the turn. Horses that usually are galloped in a straight line need to be caused to alternate leads so that they do not suffer a muscular imbalance and subsequent difficulty making turns in one direction or the other. To get a horse into gallop, the rider must alter their position so they are slightly more forward in the saddle, then they should allow the horse to head and gently kick the horse's sides. The gallop is usually used in races or fox hunting. However, one would not gallop a horse during training in a ring or enclosed area, due to the fact that the horse may slip in attempting to gallop in such an area. Although a race track is an enclosed area, it is designed for a horse to gallop around, without being too enclosed which may cause the horse to slip while turning.

Other gaits

Some horses, called Gaited Horses, have gaits other than the most common four above. For details, see Horse gaits.

Words relating to horses

You can view an entire equine dictionary at: The Horse Dictionary

  • Bronco - a wild, untamed horse, typically used in reference to the American mustang.
  • Brumby - a wild or untrained Australian horse
  • Charger - a medieval war horse of lighter build not to be confused with a destrier
  • cob - any horse of a short-legged, stout variety, with short legs, and a compact body, neck and back
  • colt - an unaltered male horse from birth till the age of 4.
  • destrier - a heavy, strong medieval war horse not to be confused with a charger or palfrey
  • draught horse - heavy, muscular beast of burden
  • filly - female horse from birth till the age of 4.
  • foal - infant horse of either sex
  • garron - small and disdained horse
  • gelding - a castrated male horse of any age
  • god dog - how the Apaches referred to horses
  • green - a term used to describe an inexperienced horse
  • hack - A horseback ride taken for the purpose of pleasure, either for horse or rider. Not a trail ride or schooling ride. Generally used only by English-style riders. eg. I'm going out on a hack."
  • hackney - a specific breed of flashy, elegant driving pony
  • Hand - a unit of measuring used frequently to measure a horses height. One hand is equal to 4 inches (appox. 10 cm)
  • horse - adult equine of either sex over 14.2 hh (58 inches, 1.47 m)
  • jenny - a female donkey
  • mare - adult female horse
  • mustang - a feral horse found in the western plains of North America. According to BLM, though, a mustang is an unclaimed, unbranded, free-roaming horse.
  • nag - A rude term used to describe old horses, 'ugly' horses (but beauty is only skin deep) or skinny, sickly horses.
  • palfrey - a smooth gaited type, a riding horse, often used incorrectly to mean a woman's horse, but in fact, was ridden by knights and ladies and instead refers to the light build of the riding horses body. The word being derived from the latin for 'light horse'.
  • pony - equine 14.2 hh or less (58 inches, 1.47 metres)
  • School Horse/Pony- A horse owned by a riding academy
  • shelt or shelty - a Shetland pony
  • stallion - adult, male horse that is able to produce offspring
  • weanling - a young horse that has just been weaned from their mother (usually 6 months or a little older)
  • yearling - male or female horse one to two years old

In horse racing the definitions of colt, filly, mare, and horse differ from those given above. Thoroughbred racing defines a colt as a male horse less than five years old and a filly as a female horse less than five years old; harness racing defines colts and fillies as less than four years old. Horses older than colts and fillies become known as horses and mares respectively.

Words relating to horse anatomy

Horse parts
Horse parts
the highest point of the shoulder seen best with horse standing square and head slightly lowered. The tops of the two shoulder blades and the space between them define the withers.
mane and forelock
long and relatively coarse hair growing from the dorsal ridge of the neck, lying on either the left or right side of the neck, and the continuation of that hair on the top of the head, where it generally hangs forward. (See illustration.)
the point where the tail connects to the rear of the horse.
Where the hind legs and the stomach of the horse meet.
The connection between the coronet and the fetlock. Made up of the middle and proximal phalanx.
Resembles the ankle of the horse. Known to anatomists as the metacarpophalangeal joint.
The part of the hoof that connects the hoof to the pastern.
Resembles the shin of the horse. Consists of metacarpal III.
the chin, mouth, and nostrils make up the muzzle on the horse's face.
the point on the neck where the mane grows out of.
the portion of the horse's neck right behind the ears.
Hindlimb equivalent to the Heel, the main joint on the hind leg.
corresponds to the elbow of a horse, except on the hind limb.
also known as the "second thigh," the large muscle on the hind leg, just above the hock, below the stifle.
the cheek bone under the horses ear on both sides
on the inside of every leg

Horse coat colors and markings


Horses exhibit a diverse array of coat colors and distinctive markings, and a specialized vocabulary has evolved to describe them. In fact, one will often refer to a horse in the field by his or her coat colour rather than by breed or by gender.

Coat colors include:

  • Appaloosa - a breed of horse with spots, any colour mixed with white. There are different patterns: blanket- white blanket that typically starts around or behind withers with dark spots mostly over the hips, snowflake - solid with white spots over hips, and leopard - which is white with dark spots over all the coat. A true Appaloosa is actually a breed, not a colour.
  • Bay- From light brown to very dark brown with black mane and tail with black points. Three types - Dark bay, blood bay, light bay and just bay.
  • Black- There are two types of black, fading black and jet black. Ordinary black horses will fade to a rusty brownish colour if the horse is exposed to sunlight on a regular basis. Jet black is a blue-black shade that is fadeproof. Black foals are usually born a mousy grey colour. As their foal coat begins to shed out, their black colour will show through,but jet black foals are born jet black. Usually for a horse to be considered black it must be completely black with no brown at all, only white markings.
  • Brown - A bay without any black points.
  • Buckskin- A bay horse with a gene that 'dilutes' the coat colour to a yellow, cream, or gold while keeping the black points (mane, tail, ears, legs).
  • Chestnut- A reddish body colour with no black.
  • Cremello - A chestnut horse with two dilute genes that washes out almost all colour. Often called pseudo albinos, they have blue eyes. There are no true albino horses.
  • Dapple gray: a gray colored horse with rings, or dapples, scattered throughout.
  • Dun - Yellowish brown with a dorsal stripe along the back and occasionally zebra stripings on the legs.
  • Fleabitten gray - refers to usually red hairs flecked in the coat of a gray horse.
  • Gray - A horse with black skin and clear hairs. Gray horses can be born any colour, and eventually most will turn gray or white with age. If you would define the horse as white it is still grey unless it is albino. Some gray horses that are very light must wear sunscreen.
  • Grulla- A black horse with a dun gene. It is often a grayish/silver colored horse with dark dun factors.
  • Pinto - a multi-colored horse with large patches of brown, white, and/or black and white. Piebald is black and white, while Skewbald is white and brown. Specific patterns such as tobiano, overo, and tovero refer to the orientation of white on the body.
  • Paint - In 1962, the American Paint Horse Association began to recognize pinto horses with known Quarter Horse and/or Thoroughbred bloodlines as a separate breed. Today, Paint horses are the world's fifth most popular breed.
  • Palomino-chestnut horse that has one cream dilute gene that turns the horse to a golden, yellow, or tan shade with a flaxen (white) mane and tail. Often cited as being a colour "within three shades of a newly minted coin", palominos actually come in all shades from extremely light, to deep chocolate.
  • Perlino - Exactly like a cremello but a bay horse with two dilute genes.
  • Roan - a colour pattern that causes white hairs to be sprinkled over the horse's body colour. Red roans are chesnut and white hairs, blue roans are black/bay with white hairs. Roan can happen on any body colour; for example, there are palomino roans and dun roans. Roans are distinguishable from greys because roans typically do not change colour in their lifetimes, unlike gray that gradually gets lighter as a horse ages. Roans also have solid colored heads that do not lighten.
  • Rose gray: a gray horse with a pinkish tinge to its coat. This colour occurs while the horse is "graying out."
  • Sorrel - a light brown coat with a flaxen mane and tail.
  • Splash - a genetically controlled horse coat variation.
  • Tobiano - a genetic trait among horses which produces a characteristic white pattern in the coat.
  • White - Any non-albino white horse is called a gray, even though they appear white. All white, may be the result of overlapping pinto, appaloosa, or sabino markings. Rarely there are true white horses born and are documented to have a dominant white gene (see Gray (horse) for a discussion of these). These horses have normal eye colour, and they stay white for life.

Markings include:

On the face:

  • Star (a white patch between the eyes)
  • Snip (a white patch on the muzzle)
  • Stripe (narrow white stripe down the middle of the face)
  • Blaze (broad white stripe down the middle of the face)
  • White Face (sometimes called Bald Face)

On the legs:

  • Ermine marks (black marks on the white just above the hoof)
  • Sock (white marking that does not extend as high as the knee or hock)
  • Stocking (white marking that extends as high as the knee or hock)


  • Whorls, coloquially known as "cow licks" - are divergent or convergent patches of hair found anywhere on the body but mostly on the head, neck and just in front of the stifles.

For horse colour and marking genetics see Equine coat colour genetics. Another good resource for horse colour is: Horse colour, markings, and genetics. Another that has numerous photographs of various colors and markings is Equine colour.

The origin of modern horse breeds

A horse of mixed breed, Dorset, UK
A horse of mixed breed, Dorset, UK

Horses come in various sizes and shapes. The draft breeds can top 20 hands (80 inches, 2 metres) while the smallest miniature horses can stand as low as 5.2 hands (22 inches, 0.56 metres). The Patagonian Fallabella, usually considered the smallest horse in the world, compares in size to a German Shepherd Dog.

Several schools of thought exist to explain how this range of size and shape came about. These schools grew up reasoning from the type of dentition and from the horses' outward appearance. One school, which we can call the "Four Foundations", suggests that the modern horse evolved from two types of early domesticated pony and two types of early domesticated horse; the differences between these types account for the differences in type of the modern breeds. A second school -- the "Single Foundation" -- holds only one breed of horse underwent domestication, and it diverged in form after domestication through human selective breeding (or in the case of feral horses, through ecological pressures). Finally, certain geneticists have started evaluating the DNA and mitochondrial DNA to construct family trees. See: Domestication of the horse

Breeds, studbooks, purebreds and landraces

Registered Arabian mare
Registered Arabian mare

Selective breeding of horses has occurred as long as man has domesticated them. However, the concept of controlled breed registries has gained much wider importance during the 20th century. One of the earliest formal registries was General Stud Book for thoroughbreds [2], a process that started in 1791 tracing back to the foundation sires for that breed. These sires were Arabians, brought to England from the Middle East.

The Arabs had a reputation for breeding their prize mares to only the most worthy stallions, and kept extensive pedigrees of their "asil" (purebred) horses. During the late middle ages the Carthusian monks of southern Spain, themselves forbidden to ride, bred horses which nobles throughout Europe prized; the lineage survives to this day in the Andalusian horse or caballo de pura raza español.

The modern landscape of breed designation presents a complicated picture. Some breeds have closed studbooks; a registered Thoroughbred, Arabian, or Quarter Horse must have two registered parents of the same breed, and no other criteria for registration apply. Other breeds tolerate limited infusions from other breeds—the modern Appaloosa for instance must have at least one Appaloosa parent but may also have a Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, or Arabian parent and must also exhibit spotted coloration to gain full registration. Still other breeds, such as most of the warmblood sporthorses, require individual judging of an individual animal's quality before registration or breeding approval.

Breed registries also differ as to their acceptance or rejection of breeding technology. For example, all (Jockey Club) Thoroughbred registries require that a registered Thoroughbred be a product of a natural mating ('live cover' in horse parlance). A foal born of two Thoroughbred parents, but by means of artificial insemination, is barred from the Thoroughbred studbook. Any Thoroughbred bred outside of these contraints can become part of the Performance Horse Registry.

Many breed registries allow artificial insemination (AI), embryo transfer, or both. The high value of breed stallions has helped with the acceptance of these techniques because they 1.) allow for more doses with each stallion 'collection' and 2.) take away the risk of injury during breeding.

Hotbloods, Warmbloods, and Coldbloods

The Arabian horses, whether originating on the Arabian peninsula or from the European studs (breeding establishments) of the 18th and 19th centuries, gained the title of "hotbloods", for their temperament. Arabians are known and valued for their sensitivity, keen awareness, athleticism, and energy. It was these traits, combined with the lighter aesthetically refined bone structure which was used as the foundation of the Thoroughbreds. They wished to infuse some of this energy and athleticism into their own best cavalry horses.

The Thoroughbred is unique to all breeds in that its muscles can be trained for either fast-twitch (for sprinting) or slow-twitch (for endurance) making them an extremely versatile breed. Arabians are used in the sport horse world almost exclusively for endurance competitions. Breeders continue to use Arabian sires with Thoroughbred mares to enhance the sensitivity of the offspring for use in equestrian sports. An Arabian/Thoroughbred cross is known as an Anglo-Arabian. Horsed in this group are commonly called 'hotbloods.'

True hotbloods usually offer greater riding challenges and rewards than other horses. Their sensitivity and intelligence enable quick learning, and greater communication and cooperation with their riders. However, they can sometimes also decide that new flowerpot is really a dragon, and you will spend the next five minutes calming them down.

Muscular and heavy draft horses are more or less known as "coldbloods", as they have been bred to be workhorses and carriage horses with calm temperaments. Harnessing a horse to a carriage requires some level of trust in the horse to remain calm when restrained. The best known coldbloods would probably be the Budweiser Clydesdales [3].

Warmblood breeds began in much the same way as the Thoroughbred. The best of their carriage or cavalry horses were bred to Arabian, Anglo-Arabian and Thoroughbred sires. The term " warmbloods" is sometimes used to mean any draft/Thoroughbred cross although this is becoming less common. The warmblood name has become the term to specifically refer to the sporthorse breed registries than began in Europe, although now worldwide. These registries, or societies, such as the Hanoverian, Oldenburg, Trakkhener, and Holsteiner have dominated the Olympics and World Equestrian Games in Dressage and Show Jumping since the 1950s.

The list of horse breeds provides a partial alphabetical list of breeds of horse extant today, plus a discussion of rare breeds' conservation.

Horses in sport today

Racing in all its forms

Humans have always had a desire to know which horse (or horses) could move the fastest, horse-racing has ancient roots. Today, several categories of racing exist:

Races subject to formal gambling

Under saddle:

  1. Thoroughbred flat racing; (under the aegis of the Jockey Club in the United Kingdom and the Jockey Club of North America)
  2. Thoroughbred National Hunt racing or steeplechasing in the UK
  3. Quarter Horse Racing--mostly in the United States, and sanctioned there by the American Quarter Horse Association.
  4. Appaloosa Horse Racing
  5. Arabian Horse Racing

In harness:

  1. The United States Trotting Association organizes harness Racing in the United States (although the horses may also pace)
  2. Harness Racing in Europe, New Zealand and Australia

Amateur races without gambling

  1. Endurance riding, a sport in which the Arabian dominates at the top level, has become very popular in the United States and in Europe. The American Endurance Ride Conference organizes the sport in North America. Endurance races take place over a given, measured distance and the horses have an even start. Races begin at 20 miles and peak at 100 miles. Note especially the Tevis Cup.
  2. Ride and Tie (in North America, organized by Ride and Tie Association). Ride and Tie involves three equal partners: two humans and one horse. The humans alternately run and ride.

Thoroughbreds have a pre-eminent reputation as a racing breed, but Arabians, Quarter Horses, and Appaloosas also race on the flat in the United States. Quarter Horses traditionally raced for a quarter mile, hence the name. Steeplechasing involves racing on a track where the horses also jump over obstacles. It occurs most commonly in the United Kingdom. Standardbred trotters and pacers race in harness with a sulky or racing bike. In France they also race under saddle.

Show Sports

The traditional competitions of Europe

The three following count as Olympic disciplines:

  • Dressage ("training" in French) involves the progressive training of the horse to a high level of impulsion, collection, and obedience. Competitive dressage has the goal of showing the horse carrying out, on request, the natural movements that it performs without thinking while running loose. One dressage master has defined it as "returning the freedom of the horse while carrying the rider."
  • Show jumping comprises a timed event judged on the ability of the horse and rider to jump over a series of obstacles, in a given order and with the fewest refusals or knockdowns of portions of the obstacles. At the Grand Prix level fences may reach a height of as much as 6 feet.
  • Eventing, combined training, horse trials, "the Military," or "the complete test" as its French name translates, puts together the obedience of dressage with the athletic ability of show jumping, the fitness demands of a long endurance phase (a.k.a. "roads and tracks") and the "cross-country" jumping phase. In the last-named, the horses jump over fixed obstacles, unlike show jumping, where the majority of the obstacles will fall down or apart if hit by the horse.

Found in the United States

  • Huntseat classes these days judge the movement and the form of the horse over fences. A typical hunter division would include a flat class, or hack class, in which the horse is judged on its movement. A typical "hack winner" would be known for its flat kneed trot and "daisy cutter" movement, a phrase coined since a good hunter could slice daisys in a field when it flicks its toes out. The over fences portion of the class is judged on the form of the horse and the smoothness of the course. A horse with good jumping form snaps its knees up and jumps with a good bascule. It should also be able to canter slowly but have a step large enough to make it down the lines.
  • Saddleseat (also known as Park or English Pleasure riding), a uniquely American discipline, developed to show to best advantage the extravagantly animated movement of high-stepping gaited breeds such as the American Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walker. Riders also commonly show Arabians and Morgans saddleseat in the United States.
  • Equitation refers to those classes where the position of the rider is judged rather than the form or movement of the horse.

Western riding

Dressage, jumping and cross-country offer forms of what Americans refer to as 'English riding' (although the United States has a strong following of riders in those disciplines). Western riding evolved stylistically from traditions brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and its skills stem from the working needs of the cowboy in the American West. A main differentiating factor comes from the need of the cowboy to rope cattle with a lariat (or lasso). The cowboy must control the horse with one hand and use the lariat with the other hand. That means that horses must learn to neck rein, that is, to respond to light pressure of the slack rein against the horse's neck. Once the cowboy has twirled the lariat and thrown its loop over a cow's head, he must snub the rope to the horn of his saddle. For roping calves, the horse learns to pull back against the calf, which falls to the ground, while the cowboy dismounts and ties the calf's feet together so that he can be brand it, treat it for disease, and so on. Working with half-wild cattle, frequently in terrain where one cannot see what lurks behind the next bush, means the ever-present very great danger of becoming unseated in an accident miles from home and friends.

These multiple work needs mean that cowboys require different tack, most notably a curb bit (usually with longer bars than an English equitation curb or pelham bit would have) which works by leverage, long split reins (the ends of which can serve as an impromptu quirt) and a special kind of saddle. The Western saddle has a very much more substantial frame (traditionally made of wood) to absorb the shock of roping, a prominent pommel surmounted by a horn (a big knob for snubbing the lasso after roping an animal), and, frequently, tapaderos ("taps") covering the front of the stirrups to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the stirrup in an accident and resulting in a frightened horse dragging him behind it. The cowboy's boots, which have high heels of an uncommon shape, also feature a specific design to prevent the cowboy's foot from slipping through the stirrup.

Technically, fewer differences between 'English' and Western riding exist than most people think.

The outfit of the competition Western rider differs from that of the dressage or 'English' rider. In dressage all riders wear the same to prevent distraction from the riding itself. But show -- in the form of outfit (and silver ornaments on saddle and tack) -- forms part of Western riding. The riders must wear cowboy boots, jeans, a shirt with long sleeves, and a cowboy hat. Riders can choose any colour, and optionally accoutrements such as chaps, bolo ties, belt buckles, and (shiny) spurs.

Competitions exist in the following forms:

  • Western pleasure - the rider must show the horse in walk, jog (a slow, controlled trot), trot and lope (a slow, controlled canter). The horse must remain under control, with the rider directing minimal force through the reins and otherwise using minimal interference.
  • Reining - considered by some the "dressage" of the western riding world, reining requires horse and rider to perform a precise pattern consisting of canter circles, rapid "spins" (a particularly athletic turn on the haunches), and the sliding stop (executed from a full gallop).
  • Cutting: more than any other, this event highlights the "cow sense" prized in stock breeds such as the Quarter horse. The horse and rider select and separate a calf out of a small group. The calf then tries to return to its herdmates; the rider loosens the reins and leaves it entirely to the horse to keep the calf separated, a job the best horses do with relish, savvy, and style. A jury awards points to the cutter.
  • Team penning: a popular timed event in which a team of 3 riders must select 3 to 5 marked steers out of a herd and drive them into a small pen. The catch: the riders cannot close the gate to the pen till they have corralled all the cattle (and only the intended cattle) inside.
  • Trail class: in this event, the rider has to maneuver the horse through an obstacle course in a ring. Speed is not important, but total control of the horse is. The horses have to move sideways, make 90 degree turns while moving backwards, a fence has to be opened and/or closed while mounted, and more such maneuvers relevant to everyday ranch or trail riding tasks are demonstrated.
  • Barrel racing and pole bending: the timed speed/agility events of rodeo. In a barrel race, horse and rider gallop around a cloverleaf pattern of barrels, making agile turns without knocking the barrels over. In pole bending, horse and rider gallop the length of a line of six upright poles, turn sharply and weave through the poles, turn again and weave back, and gallop back to the start.
  • Halter class: here the horse is shown with only a halter and without a rider, but with a handler controlling the horse from the ground using a leadrope. The standard position of the handler is on the left side with the shoulder near the horse's eye. The horse is taken through a short pattern where the horse and handler must demonstrate control during walk, jog and turns. In regular halter class, judges will put emphasis on the performance and build of the horse when awarding points, in 'showmanship at halter' the performance of the handler and horse are both judged equally. Clothing of the handler and the halters tend to be more flashy in this discipline. Halter class is particularly popular with younger riders who do not yet have the skill or confidence to partake in other forms.
  • Steer wrestling: Europe does not allow this activity because of animal welfare concerns, but it occurs in the United States of America, usually at rodeo events. While riding, the rider jumps off his horse onto a steer and 'wrestles' it to the ground.
  • Roping: also banned in Europe. In calf roping, the rider has to catch a running calf by the neck with a lasso, stop the animal in its tracks, rapidy dismount the horse and immobilize the calf by tying three of its legs together. In team roping, one horse and rider lassos a running steer's horns, while another horse and rider lassos the steer's two hind legs.
  • Bronc riding (riding a bucking "wild" horse for a timed duration) counts as a separate event, not considered part of Western riding as such. It consists of bareback bronc riding and of saddle bronc riding.

Other horse sports

  • Bullfighting ( rejoneo)
  • Cavalry (sport)
  • Driving, traditionally a buggy, carraige or wagon pulled by a single horse or tandem (team of horses). Some contemporary driving competitions are based on traversing obstacles at speed. Pleasure competitions are judged on the turnout/neatness of horse and buggy.
  • Charreada, the highest form of Mexican horsemanship based on a mixture of Spanish and Native traditions.
  • Fox hunting
  • Horse hacking
  • Horse show
  • Jousting
  • Hunter Pacing, a sport where a trained rider rides a trail at speeds based on its condition and then people compete to ride closest to that perfect time. Hunter paces are usually held in a series. Hunter paces are usually a few miles long.
  • Polo, a team game played on horseback, involves riders using a long-handled mallet to drive a ball on the ground into the opposing team's goal while the opposing team defends their goal.
  • Rapa das bestas
  • Reining
  • Rodeo
  • Dressage
  • Show Jumping
  • Trail Riding, The art and sport of riding any breed horse, any style across the land. It is important for trail riders to know which areas are safe and which allow horses to cross. Competitive trail riding involves riding over long distances with scheduled stops to take the horses' vital signs.
  • Cross Country Jumping, a jumping course that contains logs, and natural obstacles mostly. The common clothes worn are usually brighter colors and less conservative.
  • 3-Day Eventing- a competition where you are judged on your total score from a day of dressage, stadium jumping and cross country
  • Polocrosse
  • Campdrafting
  • Vaulting (gymnastics and dance on horseback)
  • Steeplechase
  • Gymkhana

Criticism of horses in sport

Most animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which advocate against animal ownership, target wilder horse "sports", with claims of cruelty. Horse racing and rodeo are more easily targeted because of their extensive use of animals in sport. It is difficult for average people (or even experts) to differentiate between normal equine abilities and actual abuse.

Rodeo and racing professionals do have a strong case against radical claims. Both sides provide contradictory evidence. One problem is a disagreement about terms like abuse. Animal rights activists have the general viewpoint that all animal ownership is wrong, and thus using horses for riding and sports is also wrong, but these events are 'softer targets' than trail riding or 'refined' sports like dressage. Such extreme viewpoints are rare, however, and many people are more reasonable and worried that sports may cause injuries to horse athletes, just as they do for human athletes. All sports are dangerous, but then one observing horses in nature can see more terrible injuries occurring than occur in sports. This brings a dilemma: If a horse gets an injury while competing, is this immoral? If a horse slips in its pasture while playing, is this ok?

Rodeos claim that an injured horse is less profitable than a healthy horse. Activists claim rodeos turn a blind eye to minor injuries which do not impair performance. They also cite psychological harm, poor living conditions, forced breeding, and the killing of unprofitable horses as forms of abuse. Most horse owners that compete in sports, however, do not force-breed, kill unprofitable horses, or have poor living conditions for their horses. Sports like rodeo and racing are closely monitored by veterinarians to prevent and treat injuries if they occur. Animal living conditions vary, but many rodeo stock live on open ranches when not working on the weekend. Horse professionals that understand equine psychology and care claim they know better what is best for horses than rights activists that live horseless lives and are easily influenced by propaganda. Both groups agree that 'genuine abuse' should be ended within the industry.

Buying a horse

Buying and caring for a horse or pony can be extremely expensive and time-consuming. First-time buyers are advised to take a knowledgeable friend, preferably a riding instructor with them, to view a prospective horse. The horse should also, preferably, be 'vetted' which means the horse will undergo a scrutinous veterinary examination. This examination is normally undergone in different stages. A 5-stage vetting is the most comprehensive and is recommended. A vetting may give indication of any previous injuries or current ailments the horse or pony may have, which could prove to be expensive to treat and/or limit the horse or pony's ability to be ridden and/or breed.

Ways to look for a prospective horse

  • Ask at your local riding school or livery yard
  • Ask at your local Pony/Riding club
  • Ask your local veterinary practise/farrier
  • Look through magazines, newspapers
  • There are many web sites with classified advert
  • Word of mouth
  • Dealer - make sure he/she is reputable
  • Market/sales/auction - be prepared to see some upsetting sights. You will need to have a good eye for a horse - many are sold as seen and could have hidden problems.

The horse or pony should come with a passport, and registration details should be changed to your name and address when you buy the horse.

Caring for a horse

There are many aspects to horse and pony care.

Basic requirements

The horse must be checked AT LEAST once a day. It must have access to clean fresh water at all times, and preferably grass or hay too. If you cannot visit your horse every day, you should look at keeping it at a livery yard, where the staff can care for your horse for a fee. The minimum requirements are that the horse/pony has plenty to eat and drink, has regular farriery/dental/veterinary care and its feet are picked out daily to prevent thrush/lameness. It should also have some form of regular exercise whether it is being ridden or turned out in a spacious field.

Shoeing and foot care

The horse or pony should be shod every 4-6 weeks. If the horse or pony is unshod (if it is a youngster or not used for ridden work) it must have a trim and levelling every 8-10 weeks. Your farrier should be a qualified and registered farrier, and should advertise this fact with a sticker in his/her van. If you are unsure, contact the Farrier's Registration Council. It is illegal for anyone else other than a registered farrier to shoe or trim a horse's feet in the UK. The farrier should have any one of the following qualifications, the FWCF being the most highly skilled:

  • DipWCF (Diploma of the Worshipful Company of Farriers)
  • AWCF (Associateship of the Worshipful Company of Farriers)
  • FWCF (Fellowship of the Worshipful Company of Farriers)

A set of four shoes and labour typically costs £50-£60 a set. This may be more or less if you have an unusually large/small/difficult horse or pony, or if it needs remedial shoeing.

The feet should be picked out using a hoof pick at least once a day, to remove any stones, mud and dirt and to check that the shoes are in good condition.

Feet should be kept clean and dry wherever possible, as wet, dirty conditions may lead to thrush and/or lameness.

Veterinary care


The horse or pony should be vaccinated against equine 'flu and tetanus. You will need to present a vaccination card at many shows. You should register with a veterinary practise incase you need to call them out in an emergency.

First-aid kit

You should keep a well-stocked equine (and human) first-aid kit in a place where it is easily accessed. Replace any used/out of date items as soon as possible.

Basics any kit should include:

  • Thermometer
  • Petroleum jelly (to use as lubrication for thermometer)
  • Salt (for saline solution)
  • Cotton wool (for cleaning wounds, not dressing them)
  • Animalintex/poultice dressing. Even disposable nappies/diapers can be cut and used as a poultice as they draw moisture out of wounds
  • Gamgee, to be used as padding underneath bandages
  • Sharp, clean scissors, reserved for first aid kit only
  • Clean bucket, reserved for first-aid kit only, for washing out wounds
  • Clean sponge, reserved for first-aid kit only
  • Antiseptic cream/powder
  • Bandages - 4x stable bandages, possibly the 'veterinary' type too
  • Poultice boot
  • Latex/medical gloves, unused
  • Clean towel
  • Soap and nail brush to scrub your hands
  • Suitable box/container for all of the above, to keep them clean and tidy.


Your horse or pony should be wormed regularly, between every 8-13 weeks depending on the brand of wormer. Ask your vet for a worming programme.

Wormers come in the form of a paste or gel in a syringe, or a powder or granules, in a sachet. The sachet wormer is normally mixed in with the horse's feed. The syringe is used to squirt the paste/gel onto the horse's tongue.

You should also regularly (at least once a week) remove droppings from your horse's field to reduce numbers of worms.

There are several different brands of wormer, using different types of active chemical - which in turn kill different types of worm. You may have to use a different wormer at a certain time of year, to combat a specific worm, for example redworm.

Active chemicals found in different wormers
  • Fenbendazole
  • Moxidectin
  • Ivermectin
  • Pyrantel
  • Membendazole
  • Oxibendazole

Dental care

The horse or pony must have its teeth checked by a vet or professional qualified dentist at least once a year, as the teeth can wear down and create sharp edges which may cause problems when eating/being ridden. If the teeth are sharp, the vet/dentist will rasp them until they are smooth.


The horse or pony should be insured, as veterinary costs can mount up to thousands of pounds, horses are frequently stolen, and can potentially cause serious damage to property/people/other horses which would need to be covered by a third party policy. Tack, which is also expensive to replace and frequently stolen, could also be insured.

The horse or pony will need a field and possibly a stable. You can rent a field and/or stable from a livery yard, or buy your own. The horse or pony will always need equine company as they are herd creatures. It is cruel to keep a horse or pony on its own.

Tack and equipment

'Tack' refers to equipment worn by the horse, normally when being ridden or lunged for exercise. The tack may be made from leather, or a synthetic material, which tends to be lighter to carry and cheaper to buy.

Tack and rugs can be expensive to buy, but will last for years if cared for. You must clean the tack regularly with water and work saddle soap into the leather to keep it supple. Dry and damaged tack can break, which could cause a serious acccident if you were riding. You should also rinse the bit after every ride, or it will become unpleasant for the horse.

The basic tack a horse requires is: - A bridle, including a bit and reins - A saddle, including stirrup leathers, stirrups, and a girth - A numnah or saddlecloth/pad - A headcollar/halter and lead rope

Other equipment you may need: - Wheelbarrow - for mucking out and removing droppings from the field - Fork - Shovel - Broom - Buckets - for your horse's water, feed, bathing, tack cleaning etc. - Haynets - Grooming kit - Storage box or locker for your equipment - things tend to walk on livery yards!


The horse/pony needs approximately 2.5% of its bodyweight in food per day. This may include grass, hay, haylage and hard feed. Most horses and ponies will need a ration of 60-70% grass/hay and 30-40% hard feed. These ratios must be considered when increasing the horses' workload, as the hard feed ration may need to be increased.

Make any feeding changes gradually. Feed only good quality hay and feed. Feed plenty of bulk (fibre). Clean fresh water should be available at all times. Leave AT LEAST an hour after feeding before exercising. Keep feeding utensils clean. You wouldn't eat from a dirty plate. Feed according to age/workload/breed

Other considerations

Other costs you must consider are hard feed, hay, bedding, riding lessons, show entry fees, transport to shows. Freezemarking or microchipping is another consideration if you are worried about your horse being stolen.

A horse is a living animal and needs looking after 365 days a year, including your birthday, Christmas Day, and freezing cold mornings. Whether you do the caring is your choice, but if you cannot provide the daily care a horse needs, you must arrange for livery.

If you plan to do the caring, ensure you gain some practical experience by taking a horse-care course. There's often more to it than you would think.

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