Welcome to another session of Pony 101, where, I, a self-proclaimed Equine expert (I do actually have a B.S. in Equine Management, a long history of 4-H quizbowl success, and 20+ years riding, instructing, training, and caring for horses) help my fellow writers put accurate horse related scenes in their manuscripts. We’ve covered tack and equipment, basic terms, gaits, and even obstacles your horse might encounter when being used as transportation.
Today, we’re gonna talk breeds. There are hundreds and hundreds of different breeds of horses, each selectively bred to thrive both in the climate of the region it’s from and for its purpose. In today’s world, like dog breeds, you just shop for what you want. But in historical settings, you would generally be limited to the breeds and types that come from your region. Since there are so many to cover and I want to do this topic justice, I've divided this into four segments.
Segment One: South America, North America, Europe, Iceland
Segment Two: Africa, Middle East, Asia, Australia
Segment Three: Bonus Round Ponies of the world!
Segment Four: BONUS Bonus Round: Mules, and Donkeys, and Zebras, OH MY!
Now, before we begin, settle in for some straight up nerd talk. Based on fossilized remains, horses are believed to have originated in North America in the great plains area. From there, herds migrated north and crossed the land bridge between Alaska and Russia that once existed in the Bering Strait. Then, horses died out in North America and all horses now existed only in Asia and from there they drifted into Europe, The Middle East, Africa, etc.
Horses weren't seen again in North and South America until the conquistadors traveled over from Europe. Yes, there were images of horses in lots of indigenous cultures, but they hadn’t actually seen *live* horses in centuries. Since then, there has been excellent development of both South and North American breeds, but they all started from European stock, which, eons ago, started as North American stock. It’s fascinating to think about how a species died out entirely on one continent, thrived on another, and eventually made it’s way back over.
History lesson over! I’m going to highlight 2-3 breeds for each area as well as some general type characteristics in case you’re creating a fantasy breed. The key is to always think about purpose--what is the environment this horse has to survive and what is it being used for?
Paso Fino and Peruvian Paso’s are different breeds, but share enough similarities that I’ve put them together so I don’t end up being repetitive. Both are cob style horses with a mix of refined and chunkier features. They will be well sprung through the ribcage, have thicky, cresty necks, but be a bit lighter through the legs and have a range of refined facial features. Both breeds come in a variety of colours. They tend to have lovely lustres manes and tails. What really makes these breeds stand out is that they’re gaited, which means they have specialized ways of moving that other horses can’t do. The paso gaits (the fino, usually reserved for competition; the corto, which has the speed equivalent of the trot; largo, capable of reaching up to 25-35mph) provide the rider with a smooth, comfortable ride. I have ridden a Paso once and it was a delight. At competitions, part of the process is to ride these horses down a length of wooden floor and the judges listen to the cadence to judge how correct it is.
Notice how the rider DOESN’T move. Pasos can still walk and gallop, but it's their collection of paso gaits which allow the rider to go many miles at a moderate speed and be super comfortable throughout. So if you have newbie riders in your story, consider giving them a gaited horse to ride to make it less likely they're going to fall off!
Falabella: The miniature horse! There are small ponies, and there's the mini. Falabella's are between 71 and 86 cm in height (28 and 34 inches for all you Yanks out there). They originated in Argentina and are direct descendants of the baroque style of horse the conquistadors brought over from Europe. Aside from their small size, they are proportionally similar to horses, making them a true miniature version. They are rarely used for riding due to their size and if they are used for riding, its for a very young child, like 3 or 4 years old and even that can be pushing it. More commonly they are used as driving horses. In today's world, many are simply pets or companions and there are even some that are trained to be service animals. Falabellas are a hardy breed with an even temperament and come in a vast array of colours and coat patterns.
Mangalarga Marchador: This breed is the national horse of Brazil. Bred and developed in Brazil, the Mangalarga Marchador traces it's origins back to the Lusitano--which, you guessed it was one of the main breeds brought from Europe by conquistadors. These horses have beautiful movement, come in a variety of colours and it doesn't trot. That's right folx, you heard me. No trotting. It does walk and canter and they have two other gaits unique only to them: the marcha batida and the marcha picada. Both are four beat gaits with the batida being described as similar to a foxtrot (it's a diagonal gait) and the picada as similar to a pace (it's a lateral gait). As you can see in the picture, Mangalarga Machador are well proportioned and sleek. it is considered to be one of the most comfortable riding horses in the world.
Quarter Horse: The Quarter Horse may be the quintessential American breed of horse. The breed can be traced back to a stud named Wimpy who lived at the King Ranch in Texas (and yes, this is where the King Ranch edition of the Ford Pickup gets it's name). Originally developed as a workhorse, the Quarter Horse has gone on to become one of the most versatile breeds excelling in practically every competition discipline as well having some of the most unflappable personalities. Quarter horses are known for their well muscled hindquarters and ability to sprint extremely fast for a 1/4 of a mile (hence the name!) If you look at the picture, you can see how his hind end is HUGE. Quarter Horses have booties. The breed has shifted over the years and divided into the classic type of Quarter Horse--close coupled, thick, and muscular as in the picture and the Appendix Quarter Horse that is sleeker and can almost pass for a thoroughbred. This breed also has "cow sense" as in they are just naturally excellent at working cattle. The rider in this video is absolutely communicating with and being an active rider, but that horse is anticipating the cow's movements. Those riders are gripping the horn because otherwise they could not keep up with that horse's reactions. It's fascinating to watch a good cutting horse.
Paint: The paint horse is another American breed. Paint horses must be of either Quarter Horse or Thoroughbred descent in order to be registered with the breed association, otherwise, the horses is a pinto (which refers to the colour pattern of the coat rather than the breed). All Paints are pintos, but not all pintos are Paints! Paints are similar to Quarter Horses (surprise surprise!) or Thoroughbreds in their characteristics, hardiness, and personalities. Most tend to inherit the fortitude and calm demeanor of the Quarter Horse and you'll see them most often in the western arenas reigning supreme. In the past fifteen or so years, we're seeing more and more Paints in the hunter and dressage rings. They are easily adaptable and quickly recognizable for their vibrant coat patterns and colours. Paints can come in all sorts of patterns and colours--including a no-colour version which means they are solid and don't have any white markings anywhere on their body (aside from face or legs in standard markings). Generally, the more white or "flash" a Paint has, the more they're coveted.
Saddlebred & Tennessee Walking Horse: Again, two different breeds, but they have similar origins and qualities. The Saddlebred is sometimes called the Kentucky Saddlebred because it originated in Kentucky. Both the Saddlebred and the Walking horse came about in response to plantation owners wanting a way to comfortably oversee their vast property. Both breeds are gaited. The Saddlebred is able to preform the rack, which is a fast four beat gait with lots of action in the legs. The Tennessee Walking Horse's gait is called the running walk. It is also a fast four beat gait, but is characterized by an extreme overreach of the front and hind legs. In the photos below, the Saddlebred is the top two pictures and the Walker is the bottom two. The Saddlebred is a long, lean horse with legs for miles. The Tennessee Walker is a bit thicker, especially through the neck and shoulder.
The Appaloosa is one of the most recognizable horse breeds in the world. They were bred and developed by the Nez Perce. Remember my spiel up above about horses originating in North American, then dying out and not being seen again until conquistadors brought them back over from Europe? This is a classic example. Of the horses they brought over, some had distinct spotted coat patterns (perhaps related to the Knabstrupper, a European spotted breed), which were prized by the Nez Perce. They then bred for this and developed this amazing and versatile breed. Appaloosas can come in any colour, but they almost always have spots. The two most common patterns are blanket and leopard. Blanket Appaloosas have a white patch on their hindquarters that's covered in spots. Leopard Appaloosas look like giant dalmatians. In the current world, Appaloosas are mostly seen in western disciplines, but they have the versatility and athleticism to do absolutely anything. They're hardy and very friendly. Add to that their amazing and even temperament and sturdy conformation and you have a great family horse or a great kid's horse.
Thoroughbred: The Thoroughbred is one of the most well know horses in the world thanks to the sport of horse racing. Humans can't resist the urge to prove that their [insert thing] is best of all [things] and horses are certainly no exception. The Thoroughbred traces it's lineage to three horses of Middle Eastern descent: The Godolphin Arabian (sometimes Barb), the Darley Arabian, and the Byerly Turk, all of which were imported in the late 1600s/early 1700s and bred with carefully selected mares for the purpose of speed and athleticism. There's a great kid's book by Walter Farley that is a staple of any horse-kids upbringing called King of the Wind. It tells the story of Sham, the Godolphin Arabian--my childhood copy has since been passed on, but it was well worn and one of my favorites. Thoroughbreds are the Ferraris of the horse world. They tend to be high strung, sensitive, and can be temperamental. They are also athletes through and through and are the most common breed you see in eventing, polo, the hunter ring, and fox hunting. In the USA, there is a huge surplus of racehorses that are rehomed each year and retrained for one of these careers. In a historical context, a Thoroughbred would indicate wealth and status as they were seen as a sport horse and not a work horse. They were usually owned by upper class nobility rather than the common person. In comparison to the Quarter Horse, the Thoroughbred is a sleek and lean. As a side note, a Thoroughbred that is racing fit will have that sleek, nipped up flank appearance, whereas a Thoroughbred for most any other purpose, or retired will not.
Draft Breeds: I've lumped all the draft horses together here because it seemed better than highlighting just one (look, I have a soft spot for drafts. They will always be my favorite). And while there are other places in the world that developed draft breeds, the majority originated somewhere in Europe.
Draft breeds are work horses, known for their size and their power. They are chonky bois that weigh closer to the 2,000 or above mark ("light" breeds are usually right around 1,200 and pony breeds are in the 600-800 range). In your historical world, these would be the horses of the common people. Aristocrats might have them specifically for pulling a coach, but they likely were not used for riding purposes. Alternately, draft horses were knight's horses--they were capable of carrying the weight of an armored human being and when you hear about "charges of heavy horse" in a battle, that's what they're talking about. Draft horses were like the tank of the medieval world. When I read books about knights riding sleek, fast horses, I laugh. That horse ain't going nowhere fast. Anyway, a draft owned by a common person would be trained to both ride and drive. Drafts are known for their gentle nature and solid temperament. They don't tend to be spooky and like to be "in your pocket." That's a fancy horse term for horses that, if they were the size of a small dog would try and sit in your lap. Size wise, they have large hoofs (not kidding when I say the size of a dinner plate), chonky heads with roman noses--which means their noses kind of stick out, and thick, cresty necks. They also all have flair to the their movement--what horses people refer to as "a lot of action." In the past, most draft breeds had their tails docked so it didn't get tangled in the harness. Docking is the process of cutting off part of the tail--similar to what is done with some dog breeds. It is not practiced as often in today's world due to pushback against it being inhumane. Feast your eyes on these gorgeous draft breeds. First row from left to right: Shire, Clydesdale, Percheron. Second row from left to right: Friesian, Belgian, Ardennes. The pictures below show typical colouring for each breed, but there are variations! ALSO! The Belgian is named Zeus. He stands 21 hands tall and weighs over 3000lbs. He is considered to be one of the BIGGEST horses to ever have walked this earth since horse size has been recorded!!
Sport Horses/Warmbloods: Our next stop on our tour of European horse breeds are the countless warmblood and sport horse breeds developed there. Much like the draft, I'm taking a more holistic view here. Warmbloods refer to any horse that is a mixture of both hot blooded breeds (light riding horses, like your thoroughbred) and cold blooded horse breeds (all the drafts!). Since Europe had tons of both, they interbred to make sturdier mounts that still had the sleekness of a light riding horse. They combine the clever mind of a hot blooded horse with the calm, steady personality of a draft. Warmbloods were often seen on the battle field as well if a knight or soldier wasn't in full armor. Each section of Europe developed their own warmblood. I kid you not. And they are named as such. Dutch, Swedish, French, and every German town/area has it's own version. Germany might have the heaviest concentration of warmbloods and the horses from that area are held up as the ideal. These horses are athletes and today you'll see them competing in the international FEI***/* dressage, showjumping, driving, and eventing arenas. Unlike other breed registries that allow you to register as long as you can show the lineage, sport horse stud books require that you bring your horse to an official inspection to be evaluated and then decide if they're going to let you in. As you can see in the picture, warmbloods have a heavier profile than your average light riding horse, but aren't as chonky as a draft. They can come in absolutely any colour and pinto variations are gorgeous.
Norwegian Fjord: I couldn't leave my European tour without paying respect to this magnificent breed. Considered a light draft horse, the Fjord has a way of traveling between classifications. It is a horse, but it's usually pony sized. But no matter where you decide to classify them, Fjords are fantastic! They have a very distinct appearance and while there is some variation to the colour shown here, there isn't much. This light dun colour pairs with the white and black in the mane and the black points (the muzzle, legs, and ears) to make them easily recognizable. Also of note, their manes can grow longer, but they are usually kept short at 4-6 inches, allowing them to stand up (there as recently been a lot of effort put into creating VERY COOL patterns in Fjord manes) Used for both riding and driving, the Fjord was originally bred in the mountains of Norway. As one of the oldest breeds of horses on record, it's appearance suggests a direct link to the endangered Przewalski horse (more on them next time!) They are sure footed, hardy, and have lovely personalities--usually edged with a taste of pony sized devilment. The Fjord is very athletic and in modern times can be found excelling in a variety of disciplines.
(I know they are aren't continents, but they have a very specific bred of horse so they get a section!)
Icelandic: THE breed of Iceland and Greenland is the Icelandic horse. Yup, that's right, most other places have a variety of breeds, but they only have one. The current law actually prevents horses from imported to Iceland and any horse that is exported is not permitted to return, which is absolutely fascinating. This breed is usually closer to pony size, but they are considered horses. They are, objectively, one of the most adorable breeds in the world. They have chunky features and a lot of hair. LOTS. OF. HAIR. These horses do everything. They used as riding horses, they used for driving, they're used for sport. There are domesticated and wild herds of this breed. Incredibly hardy and long lived, the Icelandic also has a delightful personality and all the cleverness of its pony sized comrades. They come in a variety of colours. The Icelandic is a gaited breed, having two additional gaits: the tolt and the the flying pace. Both gaits involve speed (the flying pace is how they race them in Iceland!) and are smooth and comfortable to sit. I have personally never ridden on a Icelandic, but I hope I get the chance one day! In the video below, it shows all five of the gaits--the tolt and flying pace are at the end. When the Icelandic tolts, it resembles a trot, but instead of moving in diagonal pairs, each leg moves independently making it a four beat gait and not a two beat gait like the trot. In the flying pace, you have the horse's legs moving in lateral pairs. Also, of note, please admire this horse's GORGEOUS forelock and mane. I was not kidding when I said they had a lot of hair!
That wraps up today's dive into horse breeds. There are SO MANY I haven't talked about from these areas. And, disclaimer, I've provided a broad overview because this is Pony 101, so I don't do a deep dive into some of the nuance! My best advice is to do a google search for breeds of horses either from the historical era you're looking at or for something with a similar climate. In my FoxWIP, the climate was most similar to that of Iceland, so I created hardy, fuzzy, midsize equines that are Icelandic adjacent horses for my characters to ride. The key is to think about what qualities they need to survive in that environment and what is their purpose! Everyone wants to ride the shiniest horse that's super fast--but make sure that style of horse fits your character's socioeconomic status and their practical needs.
Let me know if you have any specific questions about the breeds I mentioned or about one I didn't mention (specifically from the geographic areas above!) I will talk horse breeds for HOURS so, like, you've been warned.
Happy reading and writing my friends!
**All images were obtained through google searches!