HORSE SENSE, A Writer's Guide to the Horse


Welcome, ladies and gents, to my humble contribution to that eternal staple of Western lore, the Horse. Please understand that this is not intended to be the definitive end-all of horse facts. I am not a breeder, a veterinarian, a scientist, or any kind of expert. What is offered here are merely my insights and knowledge of the horse, gained in my eighteen years or so of working with them as a guide/outfitter and occasional cowhand. Certainly there are others out there who know more, or who may offer differing views than those expressed here. This page is merely intended as a basic guideline for Western writers and enthusiasts, and these are the facts as I, personally, understand them. I hope you will find this collection of both use and enjoyment.


Horses are to be found as stallions, mares or geldings;

1) STALLIONS - Also called studs, which are whole, non-castrated males. Stallions are seldom used as working saddle horses, although some studs DO make fine working horses. However, it takes the right stud and the right handler to make a dependable work team. As a general rule, and especially in the Old West, a stallion has but one job and one goal, and that was making babies. This is because a stud horse can be rather high-strung and unpleasant around other horses, forever wanting to either fight or make love. This of course could be very dangerous and injurious to other horses, or even other riders. (I once had the shocking experience of riding a mare, when a stud horse also under saddle decided he wanted to get friendly.) Under saddle, even with a good rider, a stud can be just plain a handful. If there is a mare in season, his mind may drop you-know-where. Or, he may spend the day prancing and snorting and trying to show all the other horses what a bad dude he is - wearing out himself AND his rider. Furthermore, in a day when horses were the power behind most transportation, a stallion would often be unwelcome company. Too many people and livery stables simply would not want to risk the trouble of a fractious stud horse among their other animals. Again, there ARE quiet, well-mannered, even-tempered stallions out there. Yet the workaday, dependable horse of the Old West remains ... the gelding.

2) GELDINGS - A castrated male horse, of any age. These were and are the standard work horse of the West, generally not ruled by mating urges or fighting instincts. However, occasionally you will find a gelding that will mount a mare in season, and some that just plain act "studly." These latter types may have been gelded fairly late in life, retaining stud-like behaviors and attitudes, which is a condition known as "proud cut."

3) MARES - The female of the species. In the Old West, mares were usually reserved for breeding purposes, and occasionally as a ladies' riding animal. Mares were not traditionally used for work or riding animals, for several reasons. One, mares can be distracting to other horses, given that they come into season about once a month or so, from spring through fall. This can and does create disruptive behaviors among the other saddle stock ~ even geldings. Two, as the mare comes into heat she can become highly irritable and restless around other horses, and unpleasant to work with. (Frankly, she has PMS!) Not all mares do this, but many do. Three, geldings can become so firmly bonded to a single mare, that if she strays during the night ... the entire herd goes with her, unlike if a couple geldings were to wander off. This would be disastrous on a trail drive. Thus, although not all mares show cranky estrus cycles, and not all mares disrupt herds of geldings, it was a general rule that mares were not the favored work animal. (As a note of interest, I am told that the Arabs felt exactly the opposite, and preferred to ride mares above all other choices.)

NOTE: In wild horse herds, an older, dominant mare will be the actual the boss of the band. The stud seeks mainly to keep other males from breeding them. The boss mare is the one who decides when and where the herd will move, with the stud following. Stallions may come and go, as battles for supremacy change the herd hierarchy, but the mares remain together, and will follow the matriarch, often for years. This pattern remains useful to stock users who travel with mules, and who may keep one reliable, proven bell mare as a "magnet" to keep their animals together. In the old days, the mare was usually not ridden, but was sometimes used as a pack animal.


A young male horse is a colt. (If not castrated, it is a stud colt.)
A young female horse is a filly.
A baby of either gender is a foal.
A mare is a female, while the word "horse" was almost exclusively used to mean a male horse, a gelding. Thus; "Was he riding a red horse?" "No, he was riding a red mare."
Oddly enough, however, "horsing" is a term used to describe a mare's behavior, when she is in heat.


Generally speaking, a horse moves at a walk, a trot, a lope, and a gallop. A lope is the Western term for "canter," which is an English/eastern term. The lope is an easy, 3-beat gait which the horse can maintain for a pretty fair distance. A gallop is a full-out run, and a horse cannot maintain that for more than a couple miles or so, before becoming winded. A trot is the equivalent of a marathon runner's long-distance pace. A fit, strong horse can maintain a good trot for many miles, under a knowing rider. A slower pace is the jog, which is a bouncing, easy little gait between a walk and a full trot. Well... normally it's easy. If the horse is all wound up about something, it becomes jigging, not jogging, and that will beat you up like a tether ball, as you struggle to keep him at a slower pace. In rough country, a rider must match his horse's ability, strength, and agility with the terrain. Going uphill, a horse will of course slow down, having to propel both his weight and his rider's upwards. (Although some horses will lunge faster to get up short hills.) Going downhill... well, surely you saw the Man From Snowy River! Unlike in the movies, horses cannot go like hell, indefinitely. Yes, they can go farther faster, but just like you and me, they do need to catch their breath, they need to rest, they need to cool down and get a good drink of water. Three days of hard riding and poor care will knock visible pounds off a horse. A week of that, and he won't even look like the same animal. Good husbandry is the secret to keeping a horse in shape for a long, productive life.


Ideally, an average-sized man and his saddle. In other words, a 140-190 lb man and his 30-40 lb saddle are plenty. Tie on a coat and canteen, maybe a rifle, and you have got a full load.

Saddle bags can be used, yes. However, no prudent man loads up his riding saddle with provisions for a week on the trail. If he stuffs his saddle bags with 50 or so pounds of extra weight, plus his bedroll, he will risk soring up his horse's back, both by putting too much weight behind the cantle and seat, (where the saddle is not really designed to carry such weight,) and also by that same weight bruising the horse's kidneys. In those days, if a man was going to be riding a long ways, with no stops for meals, lodging, etc., he would bring a pack animal, as well. Thus he could pack along his bedroll, (meaning a canvas tarp and at least two blankets or quilts, maybe more for padding,) plus extra pants, shirt and underwear, a rain slicker, extra ammunition, food for several days, matches, some string, picket rope(s) and picket pin(s), coffee, coffee pot, frying pan, cooking pot, knife and fork, plate, cup, and his few toiletries. Hey, you didn't REALLY think he could fit all that in his saddle bags, did ya? Plus, if you've ever tried to swing a leg over a saddle with too much crap tied on behind, you would know what a darned pain in the rear that really is.


Well, the average I have been told all my life, in feeding stock with hay, is that a horse needs 25 pounds of rough feed a day. That means, in order to maintain his weight, fitness, and good tone, he needs to consume 25 lbs of roughage, meaning grass or hay, each day. Grain is NOT a substitute for good feed. It is merely a supplement, and does not fill the ol' belly any more than a granola bar. Of course, like people, individual horses differ in their actual calorie requirement, and the richness of the feed must also be taken into account. (Alfalfa has more calories per pound than plain grass hay.) Adjustments must therefore be made according to the type of feed, the animal's level of activity, and how easily he maintains his body weight.


BAY - Brown body coat with a black mane and tail, and usually black legs. The brown can range from a bright, mahogany color, to a deep brown that is almost black, yet with brown around the muzzle, eyes and flanks. Often will have white markings on their faces, and may have white on one or more legs.

SORREL - A rich, solid red, which may range in hue from coppery to an almost brick red. This color may be accompanied by a contrasting, lighter mane and tail, or the coat and mane/tail may be of the same reddish hue as the body. White on the face and legs are common. Cowboys seldom use the word "sorrel," though, preferring to simply say "red."

CHESTNUT - A solid, monotone brown in varying shades. Mostly cowboys would lump this in with "red," or else just call it "brown."

BLACK - True black has no brown or red tint in the coat, whatsoever. However, out West, any horse that looks black from a few steps away will pass as basic black. May or may not have white on legs and face, but the eyes are usually dark. I have seen golden eyes, a time or two, in true black mules.

GREY - Most white horses are truly grey. A grey horse is born dark, and lightens with age. In his youth, he will be black-to-charcoal colored, and may show a strong dabbling effect in his coat, particularly on his haunches and shoulders. As he nears his teens and gets into his twenties, his coat gradually bleaches out to white. Yet he will retain his grey skin pigmentation, which is most visible around his eyes, muzzle and genitalia. His eyes are dark in color, as are his hooves. Sometimes white on the face will give him a pink muzzle, but his overall skin color remains greyish.

WHITE - True white is fairly rare and is not a true color. White is actually the near-absence of pigmentation. The horse is born white, and his skin pigmentation is very pale ivory with occasions of pink. His eyes will be blue or almost colorless, and his hooves will be ivory-white. This horse may have a hard time with extremes in sun and weather. A white horse may also develop problems with eye or skin cancer, as well as birth defects. See also "Lethal White Syndrome," under Pinto/Paint, below. For further discussion on white or "creme-gene" horses, visit the Cremelo and Perlino Educational Foundation.

PINTO / PAINT - In their most common sense, the words "pinto" and "paint" refer to a horse broadly splotched with areas of white and a darker color. That dark color may be any imaginable shade of red, chestnut, brown, black, gray, or bay. The pinto pattern can range from almost pure white with a few random patches of color, to almost entirely colored with just a couple splash-marks of white on the body. Eyes can be any color of brown to golden, and a blue eye, also called a "glass eye," is not uncommon. Note; there is NOTHING wrong with a blue eye, and it does not indicate blindness. However, blue eyes coupled with all-white or mostly-white coloring CAN be among clues indicative of a condition known as "Lethal White Syndrome." In such cases, the excessive whiteness may be combined with deafness in one or both ears, or birth defects of far more serious nature. An address of this problem is to be found here. "Pinto" is a term I hear used commonly nowadays, but among cowboys, "paint" is the word of choice.
There are indeed technical terms to describe the different varieties of paint colorations, and names for how the white lays on the horse's body. However, if you're very curious, you may learn more about paint horse colors and genetics here.

ROAN - This color has many manifestations. Basically, it is a dark coat that is dusted freely with white hairs, in a salt/pepper or cinnamon/sugar fashion. "Strawberry roan" refers to a roan whose primary color is red, yet the white dusting over it lends a pinkish hue. Sometimes, however, the red roan coloring will appear distinctly orange. "Blue roan" is a roan whose coat is some shade of grey, the white hairs giving it a bluish cast. Often the roan coats will bleach out with age, creating an even stronger "frosting" effect. White legs or facial markings are common. Eyes are usually dark, but I've seen some with a blue or "glass" eye. The mane and tail may be solid colored, or streaked with white or grey.

BUCKSKIN - A light cream to tan color, with sharply contrasting black mane, tail and legs, and sometimes a darker brown dorsal stripe down the spine. Once in a while you'll find a bit of white on the face, or perhaps a white foot, but the eyes are dark, and the hooves are most often black. Traditionally, buckskins are regarded as very tough and hardy horses.

DUN - A tan, light red, or sooty-tan body color, but with the mane and tail only a couple shades darker than the rest of the coat, or a dirty brown-black. Further trademarked by a darker dorsal stripe down the spine, and hints of zebra striping on the legs, which will also be a darker shade than the body. This is a very ancient coloring, dating back to prehistoric horses. May have a bit of white on the face or legs. The eyes are dark. An old fashioned term refers to this coloring as "line-backed dun," but the fact is, every dun has a stripe down his back.

GRULLA - Pronounced "grew-yuh." Perhaps the rarest of horse colors, the body is a solid slate grey, ranging from almost dark steel blue to a lighter mouse grey. It will have a black mane and tail, black legs, and a black dorsal stripe down the spine. Sometimes faint primitive zebra striping is present on the legs. A striking and handsome color, when it is found. Seldom has any white markings, and if so, usually very little.

PALOMINO - A blond to rich golden body color, with contrasting white or flaxen mane and tail, frequently accompanied by white on the face and legs. Eyes may be dark or golden. Actually a fairly rare color, among traditional Western working horses. A palomino who lives and works outdoors will often bleach out to a very pale blond.

APPALOOSA - One of the most unique horse colorings, and certainly one of the most diverse in its manifestations. While spotted horses have been recorded in art since the early history of man, the Appaloosa horse was developed by the Nez Perce Indians of Idaho. They acquired Spanish horses very early in the 1700's, and for whatever reason encouraged this striking coloration. They bred these horses selectively, until Chief Joseph and his people surrendered to the US Army in 1877. At that time, the "Palouse horses" were identified so strongly as a symbol of Nez Perce resistance, that the horses were either confiscated and sold to settlers, systematically shot on sight, or coarse stallions were turned out on the ranges to dilute the quality of the animals. Until near the turn of the 20th century, this horse was not much known outside of the Pacific Northwest, mainly on account of its limited range and smaller numbers. It was not until the 1930's that efforts arose to restore the breed to what we know, today. Today's Appaloosa's, I dare say, are both larger and more pampered than their great grandfathers.

The old-time Appaloosa was a small, (14 hands or so) compact, hardy horse that was able to live on just about anything. The trademark of the Appaloosa is their distinctive spots, dotted freely over a white background. They also have a freckled look to the skin around their muzzles and their eyes, and their manes are commonly streaked in a mix of color and white. The manes and tails are traditionally sparse, not as full as in other breeds. The hooves are streaked vertically with grey and white. The solid colors in their coats can be anything from red to bay to black, or a mix thereof. Their eyes are usually dark, but can be lighter shades of brown or golden.

Two familiar Appaloosa color patterns are;

BLANKET - solid, ordinary-colored horse, with a broad white patch on his rump, which is dotted with large, colored spots. The name refers to the appearance of a white, spotted blanket laid over the animals' hindquarters.

LEOPARD - Entirely white, with colored spots all over its body.

However, the patterns of spots can occur in almost any manner, from irregular blotches of color on white, to an almost roan look.


Facial markings can be named as follows;

BLAZE - A broad white stripe from the horse's forehead to his muzzle, may sometimes sweep over one or both nostrils.

STRIPE - A narrow white stripe, extending from forehead to, or almost to, the muzzle. May be straight or crooked.

STAR - Just as it sounds, a white star right in the middle of the horse's forehead.

SNIP - A little white stripe that is only on the horse's nose.

Facial markings may also be mixed, such as a star on the face plus a snip on the nose, or a short stripe plus a snip. White may also appear to spill over onto the lower lip and chin.

Leg markings include;

SOCK - White that covers the entire hoof, and can extend to anywhere from the ankle to the knee.

CORONET BAND - A white foot, but the fur coloring only encircles the upper edge of the hoof, (called the coronet band) and does not extend up the leg, at all.

Some schools of thought say that a white hoof is softer, and therefore a more vulnerable foot. If a horse loses a shoe, or gets in rough, rocky terrain, the fear is that the white hoof will be more easily damaged. Others argue this as an old wives' tale, but I will share this tidbit from days gone by;

"One white foot, buy him. Two white foot, try him. Three white foot, look well about him. Four white foot, go without him."


A Donkey is a member of the ass family, that stocky little grey or brown, long-eared fellow you see being led around by prospectors, in the old movies. A Burro is simply the Spanish word for the donkey, and is very commonly used in the West. They often don't move terribly fast, and cannot carry large loads, but they are extremely hardy and resilient, able to survive on surprisingly poor feed and in very rough climates. They can be any shade of grey through brown to nearly black, with whitish around the eyes, muzzle, legs and underbelly, and sometimes are blotched in a fuzzy paint pattern.

A Mule is the hybrid offspring of a male Donkey and a female Horse. 99.9% of the time, a mule is born sterile, but the males do have to be castrated, to prevent stud-like behaviors. Once in a very great while, a female mule HAS been known to conceive and bear a foal, when bred by a stud horse. There is no recorded instance of a male mule being fertile. Mules can come in virtually any size and color known to the equine kingdom, dependent upon the mare and jack chosen for breeding.

The selling point of mules is that they inherit the size, strength, and speed of the horse, with the toughness, adaptability, and stamina of the donkey father. They stay fat on poorer feed than horses, can travel farther and longer with much less loss of condition, and generally do not take lame as easily as horses. Mules also identify with a mare, or any boss horse, as their mother figure, and thus willingly follow and stay with a herd on the trail. A good, bossy bell mare is of great value, in acting as "den mother" to a pack string or freight team, as her presence holds the group together. The mule's reputation for stubbornness comes not from brute refusal to work, but rather from the fact that mules are highly intelligent and very independent. A man can bully a horse into almost anything, but a mule will question and resist something that does not strike him as an entirely bright idea.

Donkey/Mule Gender;

This gets confusing, so pay attention!
A female donkey is a jenny.
A male donkey is a jack.
A female mule is a molly. She may also be called a mare mule.
A male mule is a john. He may also be called a horse mule.

You've got to wonder who those people were, that they named these critters after.... ;-)

If you reverse the cross, and breed a stud horse to a female donkey, you get something called a Hinny. It looks pretty much like a mule, although a little more horse-like in the face, and is sometimes, though not always, smaller than a mule. However, hinnies are not desirable, on account of they identify the donkey as their mother figure and leader. That means that a hinny will not want to stick around with or follow a herd of horses or other mules, or even a bell mare, when in pasture or on the trail. He will thus most likely become a stray problem. A mule, however, will identify with any boss horse, whether horse or mare, and tend to stick with the herd contentedly.


Not exactly. They are separate breeds of the equine species, who are smaller than a horse, generally under 13 or 14 hands tall. Ponies come in many breeds and from many countries. They are usually the product of harsh environments, such as the Shetland islands, where economy of size was of benefit to the breed's long-term survival. They can be used to pull carts or as children's mounts, but they can be very stubborn and hard-headed.

Just to confuse the issue, however, references such as "cow pony" or "Indian pony" were commonly used in the Old West, as a casual slang term for a horse. That did NOT, however, mean somebody was riding around out there on an itty-bitty horse.


Colic in horses is essentially a belly ache, and can come from several causes. Gas caused from rich feed or abrupt changes in feed is one possibility. Getting into very poor or moldy feed is another common cause. Water or feed given after a heavy workout, before the horse has cooled down, can also precipitate intestinal upset. Lack of activity can further contribute, as the horse was designed to eat while in motion, grazing, rather than standing in a stall all day. Obstructions in the intestines are another cause, which can happen when a horse has gone hungry and eats too much too fast, or does not get enough water to keep his system moving properly. Sand colic is similar, and occurs when a horse is fed on sandy ground, and consumes enough dusty feed to cause an obstruction. Parasites can be another culprit, which must be addressed by a veterinarian.

Symptoms of colic may include restlessness, visible discomfort, pawing at the ground, frequently looking at or kicking at his flanks and belly, and sweating on the neck and flanks. An ear placed to the horse's belly may note an absence of normal gurgling gut sounds. Also, a male horse may extend his penis as if to urinate, but will be able to do so. Finally, if the condition is severe, the horse may repeatedly try to lie down and roll. If a horse will lay quietly, he may be allowed to do so, but if he tries to roll, he must be returned to his feet. The risk here is that he will roll so violently as to twist his gut, which can be fatal. When colic symptoms are observed, a horse should be taken out and walked on a lead rope, and kept moving and on his feet, until such time as he evacuates his bowels normally, perhaps urinates, and becomes willing to stand and move quietly. This may take from twenty minutes to an hour or so, and can be helped along with an application of mineral oil, administered down the horse's throat. Nowadays there are also relaxing drugs such as Banamine, but back in the Old West, folks had to make do with more common remedies. A vet should be consulted in all cases, as the severity of a colic case is not always apparent to the eye.


1) Horses cannot throw up.

2) Horses cannot breathe through their mouth, like a dog, but they can cough.

3) The hoof is actually one, big middle toe. The remaining toes were long ago transformed upwards into the bones of the lower leg.

4) Horses' feet stink, when trimmed.

5) Horses' legs are too long for blood to circulate from the heart to the feet, and back up again. Rather, blood flows down to the hoof, then is pumped back up from the hoof to the heart, by means of a semi-soft tissue formation under the heel, called the "frog." Each step compresses the frog and forces blood upwards to be re-circulated. The frog will peel like old calluses several times a year, as new growth emerges.

6) There is a gap between the front, nipping teeth and the grinding molars in the back, which is where the bit rests in their mouth. The bit should never touch any teeth, but rather rests on the bare gums, the "bars" of the mouth.

7) Shod horses have to be trimmed and reshod regularly, (every 4-6 weeks,) whether or not they are being ridden, or the hoof will grow out like a big fingernail. This can cause accidents from tripping and falling, and can also create structural problems, as over-long hooves can eventually result in unnatural strain to tendons, joints, and ligaments. Left a habitual condition, poorly-trimmed feet can result in permanent disfigurement and even lameness. An unshod horse will wear down his hoof naturally, but it is good policy to keep him properly and evenly trimmed.

8) Horses are NOT as vocal as movies make them seem. Mainly, horses vocalize for three reasons; hunger, loneliness, and anger. They do not cry out in fear, like a dog yelps, but rather will react to fear by trying to flee. Horses also have a very high pain threshold, and will only cry out in pain or in dire extremity. Ordinary horse sounds include nickering in hopes of food, nickering or neighing to attract another horse's attention, and squealing in anger or irritation. (Sort of a "get away!" noise.) Stallions of course can be quite vocal, and mares may also make gentle sounds to their young. However, horses generally have very little to say to humans, unless they want something to eat.

Compiled by G. M. Atwater, June 2001
� 2001-04 G. M. Atwater

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Last Updated November 8, 2016