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Horse lingo

Some years ago, while giving a 6-year-old girl a riding lesson, I enthusiastically got carried away explaining too much and using many unfamiliar words, and my beautiful, small student just looked at me, and said, “Felicia, it’s too hard.”

Her plea for simplicity is a constant reminder that I need. Yet, in horse sports – as in all endeavors – there is a large and specific vocabulary to learn and understand, beginning with events on our barn calendar, such as “tack sale,” “colt starting clinic,” “schooling show,” “hunter/jumper classic,” “team penning,” “dressage” and “horse trials.”

How can an amateur have any idea of what these terms mean?



An easily accessible source of equestrian terms is in the classified section of many newspapers or advertisements in magazines. An ad tells much about the seller who has written the ad regarding his or her knowledge of horses. And then the prospective buyer must understand what’s been written and look “between the lines.” Ads can be entertaining, with lingo describing the horses’ breed, size, color, age, and sex. Often included are what the horse knows, degree of training, accomplishments and price.

“Green” does not refer to color, but rather to the fact that the horse lacks training. “Prospect” means the owner dreams that a horse can do something, but not that it has provided any proof that it actually can! And then, ” professionally trained” implies that someone – anyone – was paid to work with the horse, usually for only a month. It may read, “well started under saddle.” Often the seller has spent a lot on words like “bathes,” “clips” and “beautiful.” Most horses that are handled regularly will have an occasional beauty parlor treatment, but it does not mean they are safe to ride or are an athlete capable of handling mountain trails with ease.




“Bombproof,” in the seller’s eye, is a horse that is reliable, not easily disturbed or excited, and safe for anyone to handle and to ride. This is a real added value feature! Horses under 4 years of age have not reached maturity and may have few miles with a rider, while 6- to 9-year-olds may, with training, be in their prime. At 12 or older, a horse usually has a few physical problems, or at least “blemishes,” that may not hurt his usefulness at all. Horses that are nearing 20 years are “aged.”

The term “soundness” can refer to vision, hearing, respiration or the ability of a mare to be “sound for breeding,” but most often it describes the horses’ legs and whether there is an injury that could cause lameness.

People often get confused or extravagant when describing the size of their horses. A “hand” is a measurement of 4 inches, perpendicular from the ground to the horse’s withers (located above the shoulder, about where the mane ends, and the back, where a saddle would be placed). Ponies measure 14.2 hands or less, while horses are over 14.2 hands. One can’t have more than .3 in the equation or the number goes up one, say from 14.3 to 15 hands. Often sellers think their horses are taller than they really are, so beware of the “17 hand plus” horse unless it is a draft breed. There just aren’t that many big riding horses, which is why a taller horse is often worth more than a small one.

Gender is another tricky game of words. A “mare” is a female horse over 3 years old; younger than that, she is a “filly.” The male, born a “colt,” becomes a “stallion” at 3 years of age unless “gelded,” or neutered, thus becoming a “gelding.” Baby horses may be referred to as “foals,” regardless of sex.

And then, what about colors? Western movies taught my generation about “palominos” – like Roy Rogers’ golden horse, “Trigger” – with a white mane and tail. Perhaps the most common color is a bay (in newspaper ads sometimes referred to as “b.”) They are brown with a black mane and tail. A chestnut is not an edible nut, but rather a rich sienna brown over the whole body, with a mane and tail of matching color. “White” horses are seldom really white, because that would make them an albino. Most white horses begin life with dark coats, then turn gray, and with aging, look white. But under all that hair, there’s dark skin and usually dark eyes. So we call them gray, even if they look white!

Confusion with breed identification is particularly true with thoroughbreds. Developed in England, this breed excels in racing, as well as other sports. They have a verified pedigree and are registered with the Jockey Club. “Thoroughbred” is not a term for just any purebred horse but rather a specific breed. The “Quarter-Horse,” developed in the United States, is not one-fourth of a horse, but a horse that is noted for speed at a quarter of a mile.

“Registered” indicates that the breeder paid to verify the identity of a purebred horse and has the papers to show it. That can add value to a mare or a show horse but is questionable with a gelding that cannot reproduce.

Specific horse sports often are suited to horses of a particular type or size. The term “polo pony” came about because the early equines used in this exciting sport, originating in India, were small. Today, most are really horses, but the name “polo pony” has stuck.

A “cutting horse” refers to specifically trained horses that “cut,” separating a cow from the herd. Often a cutting horse is a quarter horse and may be used in the sport of “team penning,” a timed event in which three mounted riders select from a herd of cattle only those identified with a number and herd them into a special pen.

“Hunters” are not seeking prey but rather should look smooth and beautiful while jumping a course of obstacles at a horse show offering those classes. “Jumpers” need to be fast and athletic to complete a timed course of jumps without knocking the poles down. At the Grand Prix level, jumps can exceed 5 feet in height. “Gymkhanas” are timed games and races on horseback, including “barrel racing.” “Dressage” is French for “the training of the horse.” In itself, it is one of the Olympic Games’ equestrian events – displaying the beauty and precision of the horse, which almost dances while performing prescribed movements.

This is just a little opener to be “in the know” about horses. Whether you are a casual observer, horse owner or rider, being familiar with language will help you understand and enjoy these wonderful animals and the sports in which they excel.

Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member and Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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