A Practical Terminology Guide for First-Time Horse Owners

A Practical Terminology Guide for First-Time Horse Owners


Most hobbies or occupations have their own specialized vocabulary, and horse ownership and equestrian sports are no different. Understanding the terminology used by people involved in the hobby serves as a crucial part of owning a horse or participating in equestrian sports. First-time owners or individuals new to riding may experience difficulty finding the proper equipment or resources if they don’t know what a word means. Similarly, those looking to purchase their first horse may find themselves struggling to determine the difference between a colt and a filly.

Basic horse vocabulary can be divided into four categories: general terms, riding terms, horse anatomy, and equipment. Here’s a guide to some of the most important terms to know.

General Terms

horsesEquestrianism. A broad term used to describe the sport of riding a horse, which encompasses several types of riding, such as Western and English riding. While the Olympics feature no forms of Western riding, there are three English events: eventing, jumping, and dressage, a performance sport that judges how well riders and horses can perform a series of prescribed movements. Other forms of equestrianism include racing, polo, and general pleasure riding.

Hand. The traditional measurement unit used to measure the height of a horse, from the ground to the highest non-moving point on its body: an area at the base of the neck called the withers. Each “hand” is equivalent to four inches and any additional inches are counted using decimal points. The abbreviated form “hh” stands for “hands high.”

Pony. A horse that stands below 14.2 hh, although some pony breeds have the word “horse” in their name. In addition, some individual ponies may grow over the 14.2 hh threshold.

Mare. The word used to describe a mature female horse, usually over the age of three.

Stallion. An uncastrated male horse, usually over the age of three. First-time owners and individuals new to equestrianism may find a stallion difficult to handle.

Gelding. A castrated male horse of any age. Geldings are typically good riding companions and workhorses, as they typically exhibit less aggressive behavior than the uncastrated stallion. The term also refers to the castration process.

Yearling. Young horses between the ages of one and two years. Although yearlings typically do not have enough discipline to ride, thoroughbred racehorses often beginning training as yearlings.

Weanling. A young horse weaned from its mother, which usually occurs when it is between three and six months old.

Foal. A young horse under a year old of either sex. For some people, the term exclusively refers to young horses still nursing from their mothers, but others may still use the term after a horse is weaned from its mother’s milk.

Filly. Term used to describe a young female horse under four years of age.

Colt. Term used to describe a young male horse under four years of age.

Riding Terms

horse trainerBroke and Unbroke. Horse trainers use the terms broke and unbroke to describe whether a horse is properly trained for riding. A broke horse possesses the proper training for a rider of any level of experience to handle it, while an unbroken horse either has not been trained or is too young to begin training.

Bareback. The act of riding a horse without a saddle. Some people will use pads or blankets in place of a saddle.

Gait. A term that refers to the various speeds of the horse, which are generally classified according to the movement of the legs and in what combination. Most horses are said to have three gaits: canter, trot, and walk. Some breeds have unique terms to describe their gait; for example, some horses are said to “pace” instead of “trot.”

Walk. The most easygoing and slowest of the three gaits. This is the speed of normal horseback riding.

Trot. The medium-speed gait that involves a two-beat bounce. A slower, less bouncy gait is called the jog.

Canter. A faster gait that consists of a smooth, three-beat footfall that may feel akin to a rocking motion. This is the fastest speed for normal horseback riding and the term for a controlled gallop.

Gallop. A fast, four-beat gait during which each hoof touches the ground separately. At some points during a gallop, all four hooves lift off the ground.

Horse Anatomy

Conformation. A term that describes the shape of the horse’s body and its overall proportions and physical attributes. Well-conformed horses generally have stronger bodies with no injuries that will interfere with health or performance.

Withers. A term used for the ridge between the horse’s shoulder blades where the neck joins with the back. This also serves as the highest non-moving part of a horse’s anatomy and the highest point used to measure the height of any individual horse.


Tack. A word for the equipment used when riding a horse, such as saddles, bridles, reins, and other pieces.

Bridle. A piece of equipment that goes on the horse’s head and allows the rider to communicate with the horse and control its movements. It consists of the headstall, which goes over the horse’s head, and the bit slotted into the horse’s mouth.

Bit. The metal part of the bridle that sits in the horse’s mouth. It serves the purpose of delivering instructions regarding movement from the rider to the horse.

Reins. The strip of leather or nylon connected to the bit that riders hold to direct the horse’s movement.