Welcome to Friday Fiction Facts: sciency things that fiction writers need to know.

This week the focus is on horses – not a lesson for the experienced horse-writer (or rider), but for those of you whose horse-related experience consists of a pony ride at the fair, reading The Black Stallion, and watching The Horse Whisperer.

Rather than have you write something that will have all your horse-savvy readers rolling their eyes, I thought I’d arm you with some basic horse facts.  For the purposes of this post, I am assuming the horses are only a minor part of your story so am providing you with just enough that you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

So here we go .. six things fiction writers need to  know about horses.

1. English or Western?

Which style of riding your characters are going to do? Your choice will determine the kind of horse you pick, the terminology you use, and what your characters do with those horses.

A Thoroughbred jumping on a cross country course (CC)

English: This is the stuff of show jumping, girls at boarding school, hard hats and jodhpurs, and dressage.

But that’s not to say that nobody rides English just for fun. I rode English and showing was only a small part of my riding. Most was trail riding and just messing around with friends.  And, except for showing, we wore jeans, not jodhpurs.

Western: This is “cowboy” riding – rounding up cattle, rodeos, dude ranches, rugged trail riding, and competitions that show off skills like barrel racing and calf-roping.

2. Breeds of horses

Just like in dogs, there are breeds of horses and each has a purpose.  By that same token, most of the horses that kids and regular people have are not purebred. They are just horses.

However, if your horse has a specific job – rounding up cattle or carrying a girl over jumps at a horse show – it will probably be of a specific breed.  There are a zillion breeds, but here is a basic set you can use in pretty much any circumstance:

An Arabian: Quite possibly the prettiest little horse out there. (CC)

Thoroughbred:  Notice, this is a breed, not an indicator that a horse is a “purebred.”  Thoroughbreds are the racehorses you see at the Kentucky Derby. They are long-legged, fast, spirited, and often skittery.  They make good show jumpers and cross-country racers but can be a bit of a handful. Not for the inexperienced rider.

Quarter Horse: This is your good solid dependable cow horse.  You see Quarter Horses working in rodeos, on cattle ranches, and carrying kids to first place in both English and Western horse shows.  They are sprinters, racing on quarter-mile tracks. Considered “bomb-proof”, you also find Quarter Horses under city-folks at dude ranches.

Arab (or Arabian) and Morgan:  These are both great little all-around horses.  They are extraordinarily pretty, versatile (both English and Western), slight in stature, spirited and flashy, but not too much to handle for a good rider. The horse that played the Black Stallion in the 1979 movie was an Arabian.

Clydesdale, Percheron, and Belgian: These are draft horses, used to pull plows, heavy wagons, and Budweiser. The wide-rumped grey circus horses with the girls on top are Percherons.

3.  Colic

A cowboy on a Quarter Horse (Photo: Xan Gerson)

Colic is a common horse ailment that can add a helpful twist to your plot. Yes, it’s just like the colic babies get, only bigger and more dangerous.

Horse can’t vomit, so if they get the wrong food in their system, they can build up painful gas in their gut.  Sometimes it’s so bad, that the horse wants to roll on the ground to relieve the pain. This is dangerous because violent rolling can cause an intestinal torsion.

The first-line treatment for colic is to walk the horse to prevent it from lying down. This has to be done until all the gas works its way through the horse’s system, a process that can take hours.  This presents an excellent excuse for your teenage main character to spend the night at the stable with all her friends so they can take turns walking the horse – among other things. (Not that I’d know anything about that …)

4. Lingo:  Like any other field, the world of horses has its own collection of jargon. If you don’t want to sound like you just stepped off the city bus, then you’ll want to get the words right.  Here are some links to help you out —

Colors & markings  (No “brown” horses please)

Ages and sexes (Ain’t she a cute little filly)

Pro Tip:  Race horses turn 1 on the first January 1st after they are born, so breeders aim for January foals.

Gaits  (The basic 4: walk, trot, canter, gallop)

Pro Tip: Use “gallop” sparingly.  Despite what movies would have you believe, most traveling on horseback is not done at a gallop.  Walking and cantering (or loping if Western) are the two most-used gaits.  Reserve galloping for races and runaway wagons.

Tack aka Equipment (It’s “reins” not “reigns”)

Vocalizations  (Just say nay to “neigh”)

Pro Tip: Horses are introverts. All that whinnying and carrying on you hear in movies? It doesn’t happen.  Also, they do not snort at you like a bull.

Przewalski’s Horse (CC)

5. A word on stallions: Leave them out.

Resist the temptation to have your character ride around on a stallion.  Stallions are adult male horses that have not been castrated. These animals are not part of everyday horse riding. They are filled with testosterone and dominance issues.   They are dangerous, challenging to manage, unsuitable for children and novices, and are unwelcome in many boarding stables and farms.

If you want your horse to be male, make him a gelding (castrated male).

5. Wild horses can’t drag you away

With one exception, there is no such thing as a wild horse.  Those Mustangs galloping across the western plains of the US are “feral horses,” descendants of domestic animals. Same with the Chincoteague ponies.

The only true wild horse is the Przewalski’s horse, native to the steppes of China and Mongolia. The Przewalski’s horse was rescued from near extinction in the early 1900’s and today all Przewalski’s horses are all descended from 9 animals that remained in 1945.


6. The measure of a mare (or any horse)

“Wow. He’s a big horse! How tall is he?” 

“He’s sixteen-two.”


Horses are measured in “hands.” A hand is 4 inches and the measure is from the ground to the horse’s withers (shoulder).  Hands are expressed in full hands plus any inches, thus a horse that is fifteen hands and two inches is said to be “fifteen-two” which is written 15.2 hh (hands high).

“Noddy”, the tallest horse in the world at 20.2 hands


Pony:  An adult equine that is under 14.2.
To be clear, a pony is not a baby horse. It is a smaller animal.

Small Horse: 14.2-15 hh (Arabs, Morgans)

Average horse:  15-16.2 hh (Quarter horses, Thoroughbreds)

Tall horse:  16.2 – 18.2 hh (Draft horses)

So now go ahead and add that short horse scene you were thinking about.  Let grandpa introduce Josh to his old chestnut quarter horse that used to be the envy of ranchers for miles around.  Let Caitlin go to a horse show to watch her new friend put a sassy little grey Arab mare over a set of stadium jumps.  Or just have your hero ride off into the sunset. Happy trails!