Horsey Lingo to Learn

This glossary will have you sounding like a ranch hand.


A field of Standardbred trotters

courtesy The United States Trotting Association

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A horse is measured in “hands,” a term developed from the width of an average man’s hand. One hand is 4 inches, and the height is taken from the bottom of a front hoof to the highest part of the horse’s withers  (the bone at the base of the mane). Animals shorter than 14 hands and 2 inches (14.2) are considered ponies, unless they are registered with a horse breed that accepts smaller animals.


  horses are hitched to carts, wagons, buggies, carriages and sulkies. The straps that secure them to the cart comprise the harnesses. It’s not necessary to have an expensive wagon to take family and friends for a drive, but there are those who enjoy perfecting elaborate turn-outs of correctly appointed gleaming carriages and horses in a patent-leather and brass harness.

In the equine world, draft horses are to saddle horses as Peterbilts are to Porsches. Long ago they carried armor-laden knights to battle. More recently, they partnered with farmers to till the land and worked alongside lumberjacks hauling timber. Often worked in teams, pairs and hitches (4-8 horses), modern draft horses can provide fun and valuable labor on today’s small farm.

Conformation relates to a horse’s physique, and certain conformations are best suited for specific endeavors.

Gait is the sequence in which a horse uses its legs for locomotion. The walk (4-beat), trot (2-beat diagonal) and the canter (3-beat rolling gait) are inherent to horses. A number of breeds are prized for the manner in which they execute variations of the three basic gaits. Some gaits are revered for rider comfort, some for speed, some for beauty, some for endurance.

is a specific horse breed that’s best known for racing. In this country, no matter what kind of horse one enjoys, horse people stop on the first Saturday of May to watch the best 3-year-old thoroughbreds compete in the Kentucky Derby. The registry originated in England.

Warm bloods are smaller than draft horses, but they are larger, more substantial horses than the typical pleasure horse. They do well in show-ring jumping and are often expected to clear high fences. They excel in dressage and eventing.

Dressage horses are trained to perform carefully planned patterns with precision, balance and beauty. These animals might find their way to the Olympics – with the right rider.

Jumpers are expected to be comfortable clearing 3-foot, 6-inch fences; however, it isn’t unusual for horses to clear 6 feet or more. Close cousin to jumpers, hunters emphasize smooth, organized performances over a hunt course where riders chase through field and forest jumping natural obstacles in their path. The sport has existed since colonial days and was enjoyed by farmers and landed gentry alike.

riding has a major following. Riders not only enjoy pleasure riding and camping, but more serious pursuits that evolved from actual activities of a working ranch horse. Thousands of horses still earn their living on working cattle ranches. Other Western horses excel at reining, roping and even rodeo. Team penning is one of the fastest growing equine sports open to all horses and riders. Three teammates cooperate to cut out and drive their assigned three head of cattle into a pen. The team with the lowest time wins.

The gymkhana is a collection of timed games involving horse and rider. These events typically include barrel racing, keg racing and pole bending. In the West, these are known as “O-Mok-See,” which is derived from a Native American phrase meaning “games on horseback.”

From grassroots gatherings to world championships, there are limitless numbers of horse shows and competitions for every kind of animal and riders of every skill level. Stop in at local or regional horse shows to learn more about horses and horse-handling.