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Horse Writing Tip: A Caveat & Basic Terms

July 8, 2014

Once again I have let a month escape me. How? How does time go forever onward? Doesn’t it get tired? I get tired.

Anyway, as stated in my last post, I have some blog posts to make up. To do that, I’ve decided to share some tips for writing horses, for those of us out there who populate our fictional universes with equines.

But first let’s talk about what I’m not going to talk about. My claim at expertise in this area is from being in and out of the American horse world for more than a decade. However, I don’t know everything and my tips will center around knowledge and practice known in Southern California in the 21st century. If you read a post and have specific questions afterward, please feel free to ask in the comments, and I will answer to the best of my ability. The goal of this project is to provide writers a better base knowledge from which to work from and to kick start personal research into what their specific creative work needs.

My other caveat is you all get to be bombarded my cute pictures of my horse Penny because she is a cute.

Say hello to my horse! Her name's Penny. This is one of my favorite pictures of her.

Say hello to my horse! Her name’s Penny. This is one of my favorite pictures of her.

With that out of the way, let’s go to the very basics and go over some glossary terms. First, let’s look at how horses differ from other equines. (Hey, I said the very basics)
• horse vs. pony—the difference between a horse and a pony is height. People measure horses’ height in a unit called “hands,” which comes out to be 4 inch segments. So my horse Penny is 15 hands and 3 inches (colloquially “fifteen three”), which means she’s 63 inches. A pony is at or shorter than 14 hands and 2 inches while a horse is taller than that.
• horse vs. donkey—donkeys are a different species, though admittedly in the same genetic family. Horses and donkeys can interbreed. (One time Penny was propositioned by an admittedly nice looking donkey. But I said no because I didn’t have the time or money to support offspring)
• horse vs. mule—the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. Mules are typically sterile, so genetically they’re a bit of a no-go. That doesn’t mean they can’t have sex. They can (and do) have sex, but the act won’t produce offspring.

Culturally-speaking, donkeys and mules are more family pets or work animals than entered into competitions or shows. Horses can be work animals, pets, and/or entered into competitions or shows. There are horse show nearly every weekend where I live.

Next up for horse term basics is horse sexes. I’ll try to order it by life cycle.
• foal—a baby horse, less than a year old
• yearling—a horse that’s one year old. Two year olds are just called two year olds. The special yearling term is prevalently used in the horse racing world where very young horses are commonplace
• mare—a female horse. Mares experience heat cycles, called going “in heat” (so I’d say “Penny’s in heat”). This typically happens once a month, just like with humans. The experience is characterized by increased irritability, increased attentiveness to other horses, and increased urination (their pee contains a special ‘I’m in heat!’ scent that drives other horses bananas). Mares also go through the horse equivalent of menopause, which is a whole other bucket of fun. Mares are not typically spade unless they experience severe behavioral problems when they go into heat. Some mares that are in training or showing in competitions receive medicines like altrenogests that suppress their heat cycle. Please note that altrenogests can be absorbed through the skin and any humans handling them should wear gloves.
• stallion—an unfixed male horse. At competitions, stallions have yellow ribbons tied around their tails because they have so many hormones and scents running about that they and other horses can go a bit bonkers, especially with mares in heat.
• gelding—a neutered or “gelded” male horse. Horse owners have to pay for the neutering procedure themselves, but the overwhelming majority of them do it unless the horse has breeding prospects.

As far as gender, I have met three male horses who have a preference for other males. Prince did nothing when surrounded by mares but started acting like an excited stallion when other male horses where around, i.e. reaching to touch the other male horse, dancing around the border of his stall trying to get into their stall, calling for those horses when they left, and showing reluctance to leave his stall when it meant being separated from them. Darling and Leo give each other neck rubs and happy whinnies when to greet each other, and this is especially notable because Leo is a big grump to everybody else. Penny herself seems to have a preference for other mares, unless she’s in an intense heat. Windy, one of Penny’s old barn mates, is now at to pasture and is literally running the herd like she’s the stallion in charge. So if you want to have an LGBTQIA horse, go right ahead.

The last thing I want to say before we go further is that horses have individual personalities, just like dogs and cats have individual personalities. They are individuals. There are stereotypes of course (stallions are noted for their bravery, geldings are typically shier, mares can turn into little devils once a month), but I meet and get to know horses much the same way as I get to know people. I spend time with them and learn all their little quirks and particulars, and all of them have different quirks and particulars. There’s this one mare at my barn who’s such a sleepy head that she takes five to six naps a day while this other gelding is just Mister Energy—he’ll be all nice in his stall, but you let him loose in an arena and he tears around like rocket ship or like an angry, trapped bee. Whoosh!

If you have any questions or want to hear more stories, just leave a comment! Next post we’ll go over basic horse anatomy. Yeehaw!

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From → Writing Tips

3 Comments
  1. Um, “mares are not usually spayed.” They aren’t usually shovels, either, though, so you get a point for accuracy. 😀

    Is the yellow ribbon a “beware of potentially hyperactive horse” sign?

    Penny is looking excellent in that picture! When I saw her, she was a little more, “KINDLY EXTEND THAT CARROT INTO MY GAPING, TOOTHY MAW. I SWEAR I WANT THE CARROT, NOT YOUR HAND. REALLY. THANK YOU.”

    • Oh dear. I meant like they’re not spade, as in their ovaries removed to prevent heat cycles. No shovels are harmed during this process.

      That’s a good way to describe the yellow ribbon. It lets riders on mares know to keep away, because both horses will get hyperactive and unmanageable because hormones.

      Thank you! PENNY LOVES CARROTS. SHE WOULD LIKE TO FORMALLY ENCOURAGE ALL HUMANS TO FILL HER TOOTHY, GAPING MAW WITH CARROTS. FINGERS NOT ACCEPTED.

      • No, no, I mean the spelling is “spayed” here, not “spade.” A spade is a shovel. You spay a cat. And a horse, apparently. I knew what you meant, though! 😀

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