Pony 101: How to Speak Horse
Long time no blog! I had too many spoons in the fire over the past two months and sadly, ye olde blogging spoon was one that was quickly abandoned. I did manage to get my Harpy Girls WIP rewrite done and have already done a small round of revision though...so it was worth it for me. Anyway, we're here in the second quarter of the year and I've got so many things to share with y'all!
First up, I'm back with even more semi-useless equine knowledge that may or may not ever come up in your writing! *sits back and appreciates the excited cheers of my fans*
Alright, lets get down to business. Horse jargon is definitely its own language and if you were ever to just go sit at a barn and eavesdrop on horse related conversations or listen to a riding lesson, you'd have no clue what they were actually talking about and leave thinking a lot of shady things were going on. Tbh, out of context riding lesson conversations are truly the best as far as innuendos. Trust me.
So, I present to you, The Beginners Guide to Horse Jargon
Horse: any equine over 14.2 hands (we’ll talk about hands in just a tic). A hand is 4” so a horse is any equine that is over 4’ 8” tall.
Pony: Any equine over 34 inches but UNDER 14.2 hands
Mini: Any equine up to, but not over 34 inches
Hands: How they’re measured! At the withers. A hand equals 4 inches. Back in the day, most people didn’t carry around a measuring stick, so this became a quick way to measure horses, you would start at the ground, laying one hand on top of the other and count until you got to their withers (the bony protrusion at the bottom of their manes). It wasn’t the most consistent, but it gave people a general idea. And, interestingly enough, people still tend to estimate bigger. If you’re horse shopping on the internetz and an ad says a horse is 16.2+, that horse is probably only 16 Hh on a good day. (Hh=Hands high)
Mare: A female horse over one year old
Stallion: A male horse over one year old
Gelding: A male horse, regardless of age that has been castrated. Interesting note, before you start gelding the horses in your story, think about the society. Gelding is a more recent undertaking in the world and in some historical societies, it was actually illegal to castrate a stallion--breeding rights were a big thing and could bring in extra income for a family. Not to mention that there was no real reason to pay a vet to perform the castration if you didn’t have that extra income sitting around to pay for it.
Colt: A male horse under the age of one
Filly : A female horse under the age of one
Foal: A horse of either sex under the age of one. Did you know that within an hour of being born, most foals up up on their legs (it’s the funniest thing to watch them try to stand for the first time, they teeter so bad), and in theory, ready to run from danger. It’s amazing.
Here watch this video of a momma mare teaching her bb to walk:
TYPES OF HORSE: general words you can use to describe the style of horses in your story
Light: Sometimes also called hot-blooded breeds, this refers to any breed of riding horse. They might also be used to pull light carriages, but it refers to finer boned breeds that typically stand 16.2 hands and under and max out at about 1500-1700lbs. (there are always exceptions!) They were built for riding and traveling and within their specific breed, you’re going to have special abilities (Thoroughbreds are built for speed, Quarter Horses for sprinting, Walking horses for comfort, etc.etc.) Think of them as the sedans of the horse world. You can have a sporty 2 door coup or you might have a minivan--both would be considered “light.”
Heavy: Commonly referred to as the cold-blooded breeds. This is anything that is BIG. Big boned, higher weight class. Think the ¾ ton Trucks and bigger of the horse world. These horses were built for power and for work. They are also called draft horses, or draught horses. The gentle giants of the horse world--they are seriously the sweetest, but man are they huge. These are the horses you find on the battlefield of a medieval novel, or pulling heavy carts of products through a town, or plowing a field. In modern society they have less practical function since the majority of their jobs have been replaced by industry and machines. The most famous are the Budweiser Clydesdales.
Warmblood: The warmblood is a horse that has one light breed parent and one heavy breed parent (hot blooded and cold blooded =warmblood!). In Europe, each country or region has a distinct warmblood breed. America, forever late to the party only has the “American Warmblood,” a still relatively new breed that is still in its fledgling state of creating a studbook and a process for approving mares and stallions for its registry. It’s still fairly wide open and so if you have a horse with the correct parentage (one light, one draft) you can apply for papers and have a pretty good chance of being approved.
Cob: A cob is a sturdy (aka, draft-ish) horse around 15Hh. They tend to be chonky little beasts and require a very particular size of tack and equipment as they are too large to be ponies, but too chonky to be standard horse size. Cobs are often used as driving horses or as children's or ladies horses.
Riding: This is any horse that is trained to be rideable. Although it mostly refers to light breeds of horses.
Carriage: This is any horse trained to wear a harness and pull something. Carriage has a bit of hoity-toity connotation to it, so feel free to replace with whatever the horses are actually pulling. So, driving horse plow horses, wagon horses, streetcar horses, and so on.
Work: Another term often used for draft horses or any horse used to do labor versus being used for pleasure riding or hacking (a fancy word for riding about for fun, it is not horses cyber-hacking into the dark web).
Note: These are just basic, broad categories. Many horses fit in more than one, but for story purposes you'll likely only have to identify one. For example, in ye olden times, most horses were trained to be both riding and driving horses. It's only in the modern world where horses have started to have one specific type of training in their bag of tricks.
Tack: the collective word for everything that is used to ride and care for horses. Horse owners have tack boxes to easily transport their tack and tack rooms in barns are filled with all of these pieces of equipment. The tacking up process involves brushing a horse and putting on a saddle, bridle, or harness. Untacking is the reverse process.
Curry: Used to break up mud and dirt on the horse’s coat. It's used in a circular motion and should never be used on the horses head or legs (too bony) Old fashioned curies are made of metal, modern curries are made of rubberized material. They have teeth or big bristles.
Brush: Dandy brush, soft brush, medium brush, hard brush, finishing brush...there are so many brushes. Don’t worry so much about the type and if you do describe it, stick to soft/medium/hard. The harder the bristles, the better it does with thick, chunky dirt and mud, softer brushes are for fine dust, and a medium brush is jusssssssssst right. Brushes are used in a flicking motion, short, quick movements, working from head to tail and can be used everywhere.
Hoof pick: Horse’s feet are fascinating. Quick sidebar: The original horse, Eohippus, was approximately the size of a small dog and had five toes. FIVE! Modern horses are obviously much larger and stand on just one toe. Basically over eons of evolution, their side toes shrunk and became their leg bones leaving them standing on just their middle toe. So yes, horses are constantly flipping everyone off. All day, every day. Back to the hoof pick. I'll do a full blog on horse’s legs and feet one day, but what you need to know is that there are grooves on the underside of the hoof that are perfect places for rocks and dirt to become wedged. Regular removal of this crud not only promotes healthy feet, but keeps horses sound. Imagine being asked to do anything with a stone stuck in your shoe--it would be horrible. Hoofpicks are used to clean the feet. You pick up the hoof with one hand and use the pick with the other. Horses are trained to rebalance their weight to their other three legs so you aren’t left holding up ¼ of a horse.
Halter: This is the contraption that goes on a horse’s head which allows a human to catch them, hold on to them, and gives us some basic control. Think of it like a dog’s collar. They can be made from all sorts of things. Leather and rope are the old school options, nylon and an assortment of other fabrics are now common. These can be very ornate or very plain. Horses can be turned out with them or they might wear them in their stalls. They don’t generally interfere with anything a horse does on the daily. [please note that in the picture, The Pony is also wearing a fly mask, it is thin mesh and she CAN see through it. It is not a blindfold...)
Lead: This attaches to the halter and functions like a leash! You can lead a horse around, tie them to things with it, or in a pinch, knot it like a pair of reins and ride your horse using the halter! (see that amazing picture of me and The Pony from 1993... *cringes in teen horror*) Normally made of rope, they can also be leather or nylon, some have chains, some don’t. In a pinch, lots of things can be used as a lead rope, most commonly a belt.
Bridle (not a bridal!): This is the piece of tack that goes on a horse’s head, has a bit attached (that goes in the horse’s mouth) and has reins that then allow you to steer while riding. I cannot tell you how many books call it a bridal...which is a totally different thing. I then always imagine a horse in a beautiful white gown and a veil. Which I mean, you could have a bridal bridle... Another point of note, horses would not be turned out while wearing a bridle, so if your character is getting their horse from a field, don't have the horse wearing a bridle already!
Saddles (English/western/Australian) The saddle is the piece of tack that gets strapped to a horse’s back and you use it to make riding easier. There are three basic designs of saddlery in existence today: English, Western, and Australian. Each was developed for specific purposes. English saddles have a variety of versions based on the type of riding you do. I for example had both a jumping saddle and a dressage saddle--both English saddles, but very different form and function to allow me the most secure position for each activity. The same goes for Western saddles. Lots of different designs based on whether you’re working cattle, long distance riding, or running gymkhana. The Australian saddle is like the best of both worlds--it has aspects of each. The take away here, is that you need a saddle that is designed to help your horse and rider do whatever it is they need to do. Equipment was designed based on its function. Take a look at a racing saddle--its basis comes from English style tack, but there is hardly any leather there (lightweight) and it doesn’t have a tree (wooden or synthetic framework beneath the leather) because the jockey doesn’t ever really sit on the horse. It was developed for a very specific purpose--provide the jockey a tool to balance themselves without interfering with the horse’s stride or speed.
All saddles have girths! Girths should be checked and tightened before mounting!
From left to right: Western saddle, jump saddle, side saddle, Australian Saddle. (Side Saddle pic from: https://www.yourhorse.co.uk/features/pommels-habits-and-hats-an-introduction-to-side-saddle/)
Harness: Much like saddles, there are several different designs for harnesses depending on what the horse is pulling and whether they are part of a team or a one man show. The harness is a confusing tangle of leather until you’re familiar with it. But it has a function and each part is essential. The bigger the horse or the more they’re pulling, the more likely you are to see hames--those big chunky things that sit over the horse’s neck and just in front of the withers. Lighter carriage horses usually don’t have these.
All tack, regardless of function needs to be properly cared for. Especially leather. Leather rots, cracks, molds, and breaks--which is partially a safety feature. I always used leather halters on my horses because it if got caught on something, it would break rather than the horse getting tangled and more panicked. Tack can be easily sabotaged. There are a lot of options here for dastardly tomfoolery from villains, or just pure dumb luck (there have been lots of lost stirrups and reins in the midst of competition and watching riders recover from these moments is fascinating)
Okay, lets pull it all together and meet a few of my ex-horses:
Meet Kell. He was my most recent equine buddy. Kell is a bunch of things. He's a riding horse. He is a warmblood (he is a paint/draft cross and orginated in Canada, so you guessed it, he's a Canadian Warmblood!) He has a cob type to him because he was about 15.1Hh and look at all that chonk. (His chonk was one of my favorite things about him!). In this picture he is modeling a lovely bridle. He is a gelding (not that you can tell that from the picture)
Next up, meet the redheaded hunk that almost made my dreams come true, Luck Dragon, aka, Bastian. Bastian is a riding horse, he's a Thoroughbred, so he's considered a light/hot-blooded breed. He is 16.2Hh (legit). In this picture he's modeling a bridle, a dressage saddle, and polo wraps. (legwear for horses is also a very modern thing, so you probably won't have it in your story). You can see he is sleeker and a bit more refined than Kell--although he is more of a European style Thoroughbred than an American Thoroughbred and he is muscled VERY differently from racehorses since his focus was on dressage.
And finally, meet Goldie, aka, THE PONY. She was my first horse (pony!) when I was just 12 years old. She is my heart and my most favorite equine of all time. Okay, so, we've already established she's a pony, scraping in just under the wire at 14.1 3/4. (Trust me, getting her pony certificate for 4-H was nerve wracking). She is a light riding horse and is an Arabian. Check out her face--the concave profile is a distinct breed characteristic. Most Arabians are fine boned and sleek. The Pony was a bit of a chonk and I regularly had to buy cob sized halters and bridles to fit her. She's sporting a bridle and an all purpose english saddle.
Alright, I've thrown a lot of words at you! There will be a quiz tomorrow, so please study! Hahahahaaha, jk, no quizzes. Testing is a scam. I do hope this is a helpful basic guide and if you have any specific questions about what something might be called, please don't hesitate to get in touch! I am here to answer all your horse adjacent writing questions.