Horse Terminology 101

If you were fortunate enough to get your first horse when you were just a young child, odds are you began learning essential equine terminology at an early age and really can’t even recall never knowing what a “chestnut” is.

But, if you are coming to horse ownership only as an adult, there is simply no time for a learning curve. There are several reasons why it is extremely important to know the names for the parts of the horse you are riding, working, or purchasing for you own child.

woman riding a horse on the homestead

First, you don’t want to look like a completely baffled fool when standing around the barn talking to “horse people” while watching the farrier put shoes on your beauty.

Secondly, to properly care for the horse and to describe the illness or injury the animal has sustained, you must be able to identify the location of the problem and other significant details.


A hand is the customary unit of measure for a horse’s height A hand is equal to four inches If you turn your hand sideways and measure the width of your palm, it is about four inches long. Once upon a time, cowboys used this semi-standard hand dimension to measure the height of a horse when posting it for sale or outfitting it with tack – i.e. necessary equine gear.

Horses, as well as ponies, miniature horses, mules, donkeys – and miniature versions of each, are measured in hands from the ground up to the highest non-moving portion of their bodies… the withers.

Any inches in height that do not equal another hand are measured with a decimal point. For example, my beloved Ruby is 14.2 hands tall. Each number after the decimal point up to the number 3, represents a single inch. If browsing horse for sale listings, you will often see the height of the horse represented with either “HH” or a single “H” after the measurement instead of the word “hands” spelled out.


Folks often refer to all equine that is not a mule or a donkey as a horse. But, a member of the equine family that is not a donkey or a mule must be at least 14.2 hands tall to actually be a horse. If the animal is less than 14.2 HH.


A pony is NOT a young horse. Please do not make that mistake while bidding at the local horse auction and chatting with the buyers beside you, I guarantee you that you won’t ever live it down AND sellers are going to look at you as an easy mark to buy a poor quality animal at an inflated price.

Now, if you gather any four horse people in one place and as what is equines smaller than 14.2 hands are, they are most likely to answer “the devil” instead of saying pony or miniature horses. Ponies tend to be a lot more rowdy and frustrating to train than horses, on average. Perhaps their less than mature dispositions is why many non-horse people tend to think of them as young horses. On more than one occasion I have compared a pony to a middle school. Having been both a middle school girl myself and having survived raising one, I truly felt it was a proper label to heap upon the high-strung and overly dramatic critters.


A pony is generally a lot more stocky than a horse and typically boasts thicker manes, tales, and coats, than its taller equine counterparts.

Miniature Horses

If you are in the market for a member of the equine family that is smaller than about 38 or 34 inches (the mini horse experts debate that “official” maximum height fervently) than you are attempting to buy a mini horse. Miniature horses are routinely measured in inches instead of hands because of their short stature, but some ads will still use the HH measurement when posting an animal for sale.

Miniature horses are build little a tiny version of a horse and are not stocky like a pony nor do they have exceptionally bushy tails and manes. than hands). The current miniature horse is bred to be more refined than the pony, with a long, flexible neck, straight legs, and a short back


A mature (at least 3 years old) female horse.


A mature (over 3 years old and castrated male horse. A quick glimpse towards the genitalia of a male horse will quickly reveal if it is a gelding or not. The balls are removed and only a sheath remains visible during the castration process.



A mature male horse that has not been castrated. Also commonly referred to as a stud.


A newborn member of the equine family.


A young member of the equine family that is typically between six to 12 months old. Weanlings are broken down into to groups based upon sex: colt (male) and filly – a female.


A member of the equine family that is between 12 months old and two years of age. Male horses are still referred to as colts and females as fillies, when they are in the yearling stage.


A mature mare that is not typically broke to ride but used solely for breeding purposes.


The withers would be the part of a horse’s anatomy non-horse people would most often refer to as the shoulders. The withers can be found by touching just beyond the last hair on the horse’s mane. It is the highest non-moving part on a horse, as noted above, and is located where the neck meets the base of the back.

Some horses have fleshy or rounded withers and other ones have bony or narrow withers, which can make outfitting the horse with a saddle uncomfortable for both the animal and the rider – especially if the rider is a man.

horse withers

photo above shows a horse’s withers


An equine’s foot.


The joint just above a hoof where the leg bones attach to the angled pastern on the foot.


The angled bone that connects the leg bone to the hoof.


The joint that has a pointy type shape and is located about halfway up the horse’s hind legs


The other joint located approximately halfway up the horse’s front legs.


The tiny and nearly circular space on the top of the hoof – also called the coronary band.


The part on each hind leg of a member of the equine family that runs from the navicular bone to the pelvis.

horse leg terminology


This is the largest joint in the body of a horse. It is quite similar to a human knee. The stifle contains soft tissues, a patella, bones, menisci, cruciate, and other ligaments.


The top portion of the head between the ears.

horse head terminology

Horse Lower Body Parts

horse chest and shoulder location


This refers to the general balance of the equine. If a horse is “well-conformed” its body parts are all proportional and functioning properly. Some horse breeds are well-conformed for a particular type of work or leisure but not others.


The belly area of a horse.


A large hind leg muscle located between the hock and the stifle that functions basically like a human calf muscle.


This part of a horse contains skin and muscle that covers and protects the coccygeal vertebrae.


Muscle in the horse’s rump.


The upper neck portion of the horse where the mane grows.

horse lower body parts


This references an injury the horse has sustained that is negatively impacting its health or overall performance – primarily the ability to run or walk properly and without pain.


A phrase used to note a healthy and properly functioning horse.


This phrase is used when describing the color pattern on the horse. The points of a horse are its tail, mane, top of its ears, and lower legs.

When the horses below are described based upon their points, the animal primarily non-white portions of the body would be detailed. These horses boast what is referred to as a “paint pattern.”

horses with a paint pattern


his is a catch all term for the equipment and gear used to ride, care for, work, or drive horses – hence the term, “tack room” in a barn or stable. Sometimes folks are referring only to the gear used to ride the horse when referencing tack. When someone says they are going to go “tack up” they are putting the saddle, bit, bridle, blanket, and reins on their horse in preparation to hit the trails, or use in the for some type of work.


There are many types of saddle. Some, like western pleasure or English saddles, are used primarily for leisure riding. There are also pack saddle, Australian saddles, side saddles, enduro saddles, trick saddles, barrel racing saddles, etc. that are are chosen for leisure riding preference or for either special types of riding performance or packing gear.


A piece of tack those goes onto the horses head that can be attached to a lead rope to tie it up or is used when doing groundwork – training.

Lead rope

A rope that is similar (yet far thicker) to a dog leash.


The usually leather or nylon gear a horse wears to be worked but not ridden, such as when pulling a wagon or buggy. See photo below:



Metal bridle attachment that is placed in the horse’s mouth to allow the rider or person maneuvering the animal, to control it’s head movements and body motion.


This is the head gear that is placed upon the head of the horse to control and guide the animal during work or pleasure riding.


Another bridle attachment that is typically made of leather and goes over the head of the horse and fits onto bit.

Breast Strap

A leather strap (sometimes made of neoprene) that Goes around the chest of the horse and attaches to the saddle to help keep it firmly in place. This optional piece of tack is sometimes used when steep rugged terrain will be traversed, when the horse is pulling a heavy load, or simply for decorative purposes.

reins and straps on a horse


The straps (made typically of leather, nylon, or neoprene) that connect to the bit and bridle combination for the rider or driver can control the horse. Some riders hold the reins in just one hand (neck reining) to control the horse but others favor using both hands, a preference commonly referred to as “farmer’s reining.”


The band that goes beneath the belly of the horse and attaches to the saddle to keep it in firmly in place.

Saddle Pad or Blanket

This soft covering goes between the saddle and the horse’s back to protect the animal from the friction caused by riding or working movement.

Cinch or Latigo

A long strap, typically made of leather but sometimes comprised of nylon, that attaches to a Western style saddle to tighten it after the girth strap has been connected. The cinch straps is looped or knotted onto another leather strap or buckle on the saddle.

Lunge Line

This piece of tack is thick like a lead strap, but is generally up to 40 feet long and used to lunge a horse during training. It attaches to the halter. The horse trainer holds onto the other end of the line while standing in the middle of a corral and moving the horse in circles around him or her.

Horsekeeping Slang

Barn Sour

This phrase is used to reference a horse that has grown quite fussy from being kept in a barn or small corral for too long.

Buddy Sour

A horse that is behaving badly (being fussy or is emotionally distraught) because it has been separated from another horse that it has been exclusively been spending time with in a barn or other venue.

Hard Keeper or Easy Keeper

These are phrases used to describe mostly the ability of the animal to keep weight on. A hard keeper would have difficulty keeping on enough weight to be strong and healthy. The same phrases are also used to describe the overall nature of the horse, i.e. how it behave when handled, brushed, washed, loaded into a trailer, how it stands for a farrier, or deals with medical care.

Head Shy

A horse that does not like to have its face and/or neck touched. A horse who is head shy can be difficult to tack up for riding – especially for a beginner because it will be hard to hold its head still to attach the bridle system.


his describes a horse that checks on its stall, trees, etc. Although this happens more in younger horses, any horse can develop this bad and highly destructive habit.


This term is used to refer to a horse that is not known to be part of a breed registry or is of at least two mixed breeds – think lovable “mutt.”

Green Broke

This means a horse is not yet fully trained. It has likely been ridden some by an experienced rider but has not yet been “ridden out.” There is an old saying among horse people, “Green on green makes black and blue,” meaning a novice rider on an unbroken horse is going to result in the newbie rider getting a lot of bruises from rough rides, bucking, etc.

Dead Broke

In theory, a horse being advertised or referenced in this manner is so well-trained and well-behaved even a novice rider or a child could safely ride it.


Now, a horse that is bombproof is supposed to be beyond incredibly well-trained and is not started by anything the world is going to throw at it – like that plastic bag that blows onto the trail the horse thinks is there to eat it, or heaven forbid, a scary plastic water bottle that gets stepped on and makes a crunchy noise.

Horse Movements


When the gate of a horse is referenced both its type of movement and speed are being discussed. Different breeds of horses have different gaits. Some breeds are referred to as “gaited” because they can accomplish more than the standard four gaits – walk, trot, canter, and gallop..

Gaited horses typically “pace” instead of trot – resulting in a far smoother riding experience. When a horse person says a horse is gaited in a bragging type of manner, they almost surely are proudly telling another person just how fast their beauty can scoot on the trail.


This is the slowest gate. A horse picks up one foot at a time and slowly and safely moves it forward.


This gait is faster than a walk. The horse is moving at a medium and speed in a fairly bouncing motion. During a troy, the hose is moving a combination of the left hind leg and right front leg in one motion, before switching to the left front leg and right back leg – and then back again.


This is somewhat like a trot, but the horse moves its legs in pairs on the same side instead of a one in front and one in back pairing. It is generally considered a lot more comfortable gait for riders, but some folks claim it feels like riding on a boat and makes them get “sea sick.”


This is still a slower moving gait somewhere between a walk and a trot. It is not as bouncy as a trot, even though the leg motions are basically following the same pattern as a trot.


Although this is no longer considered a natural gait for most horse breeds, it was once a common motion and speed for horses. I is primarily a variation on a pace gait – slow and smooth.

Canter or Lope

This is a 3-beat football and fast gait. It is a smooth yet quick movement because it is more controlled than a full out gallop. In some regions of the country, the canter and lope are referred to as separate gaits, with the lope using the same movements but being slightly slower with the horse creating a bit more of rocking horse type of movement for the rider.


This is the fastest gait of a horse. In some regions of the country there is not formal distinction for this gait, it is simply referred to as the fasted type of a canter. This is a 4-beat gait that is often reserved for race horses – or adventurous pleasure riders on a phenomenal horse!

Have a horse terminology question? Drop it in the comments section below and we will do our best to answer it.

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5 thoughts on “Horse Terminology 101”

  1. Yes, anything under 14.2 hands (hh) is a pony. Exept there is a breed called Falabella that is always under 9hh and considered a miniature horse.

  2. In the picture that points out the tack you incorrectly have the back strap or back cinch labeled as the girth. The girth should be tight directly behind the front legs.


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