Horse Care Other

A Helpful Horse Gender Guide for Beginners

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Written by Allison G.

What is a female horse called, and other interesting equine gender trivia!

Humans have long been coming up with all sorts of terminology to describe the animals they interact with regularly. You’ve probably heard talk of cattle, steers, heifers, sows, ewes, rams, mares, stallions, and more. If that species of animal lived closely with humans, you can bet that we’ve made it complicated!

A horse is a horse, of course, but what about when you start getting knee-deep in the nitty gritty parts of the equine world? What do all of these terms even mean and why should you care? It turns out, people learned it was important to quickly and accurately describe a horse in a way that made communication easier.

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What is a female horse called?

A female horse, putting it simply, is called a mare! This word has pretty ancient origins and stems from a word that really just meant “horse.” The male version doesn’t exist in English, unless you consider the word “marshal” which means “horse-servant” and not “female-horse-servant.”

female horse and foal

Source: Canva

What is a mare?

When someone refers to their horse as a mare, they mean that she is fully grown or an adult. The age at which a horse becomes a mare really depends on who you talk to, though. Generally, a horse is a mare if she is over 3 years of age, however some other people will wait until she’s 4 or even 5.

What is a broodmare?

A broodmare is a female horse used for breeding. Often, when someone refers to a horse as a “broodmare” it is implied that she is not used for work or show, but instead dedicates her time to making and raising babies. Many broodmares are not broken to ride, but that isn’t always the case! Some horses are retired to being a broodmare if they were injured and no longer competitive or rideable, yet still sound and healthy enough to happily have foals.

What is a horse dam?

A dam in the horse world refers to a horse’s mother! This word is related to the word “dame” and had actually been somewhat interchangeable in the past. Now you can’t call a woman a dam without sounding insulting. Related words include madam and damsel.

What is a filly?

A filly is an immature female horse. The age at which a filly turns into a mare isn’t set in stone. Some horses are still called fillies when they’re 4 or 5 years of age. This is related to physical maturity and not sexual maturity! Fillies as young as 2 can technically conceive a foal, but this is not healthy and generally avoided.

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7 Fun Facts About Female Horses

  1. Mares have a bad reputation for being moody or grumpy, but recent studies have shown that they’re actually better behaved than geldings! Much of this stigma is related to human sexist ideas of male versus female behavior.
  2. Mares usually compete equally with geldings and stallions (see next section). Some mares and fillies have beat out their male counterparts in sports that are separated by gender, like horse racing!
  3. Milk from mares is used as a dairy product in some countries! It is considered to be more palatable than other species’ milk and has a lot of health food uses. The lactose and sugar content is actually much closer to human milk than cow milk.
  4. Mares were very popular as riding horses until humans figured out how to castrate stallions! They are generally easier to manage. Bedouin Arab nomads in North Africa liked to use mares, because stallions could be too loud and not as good for sneaking up on enemies.
  5. Herds that are run by a mare are more relaxed than ones run by a gelding (also next).
  6. You cannot make cheese out of mare’s milk with the normal bovine rennet! If horse milk is made into something it’s generally a fermented product, like the mildly alcoholic airag (or kumis) of Central Asia. Recently, Italian scientists have discovered that camel chymosin can be used to coagulate horse milk, which is the first step in cheese making. This enzyme was developed to make camel cheese and has also been found to work for donkey milk!
  7. Mare’s usually only have one foal at a time. Twins are very dangerous for a horse to carry to term so usually a veterinarian will check to make sure there’s only one!

What is a male horse called?

A male horse is called a stallion or a gelding, depending on whether or not he’s been castrated. The word stallion derived from older French words that related to standing or putting in a place, likely because stallions were kept in a stable and used to service mares.

Gelding derives from old Norse meaning to castrate and is also related to Norse words being eunuch (a castrated human) or wether (a castrated sheep or goat). Castration only refers to sterilizing the male of a species.

male horse

Source: Canva

What is a stallion?

Stallions are fully grown male horses that have testicles. They are usually called stallions when they are over 4 years of age, even though younger stallions can be fertile and reproduce.

What is a horse stud?

A stud is a stallion that is used for breeding, but it can also refer to a group of horses kept for breeding or the farm at which they’re kept. Many stud farms keep stallions as well as mares of a certain breed – like Lipica Stud Farm and their Lipizzan horses. The Yeguada Militar is a stud farm in Spain that breeds Andalusians and Arabian horses. The stallions kept at the various stud farms, particularly those run by the state, were used to help improve the local horse populations.

What is a horse sire?

A sire is a horse’s father and comes from old French meaning “lord” and eventually came to mean a male parent. As you may have guessed, it’s related to the word sir!

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What is a gelding?

A gelding is a castrated male horse. This is generally done before they reach maturity to prevent “stallion-like” behavior. It also makes a horse easier to handle and more useful as a riding or working animal. Since intact stallions can be strong and distractible, they require more effort and skill to manage safely.

What is a colt?

A colt is an immature, intact male horse, usually under 3 or 4 years of age. Sometimes you might see a young gelding called a colt even though he’s been castrated.

What is a horse rig or ridgling?

Rig or ridgling are terms used to describe a cryptorchid male horse.

What is a cryptorchid horse?

Cryptorchid means that one or both testicles have not descended into the scrotum. The heat from the body usually renders that testicle infertile, but the horse may still get some hormonal influence from it! They may have stallion-like behavior or may experience discomfort, so usually they need surgery to seek out and remove the hidden testicle. If a stallion only has one testicle that descended he will still be fertile!

7 Fun Facts About Male Horses

  1. Most wild stallions don’t control a herd of mares! They are also not in charge of their herd’s day-to-day activities. Their biggest roles are protection and making babies.
  2. Stallions can be more difficult to handle and manage than mares or geldings due to their sexual drive and more aggressive behavior. That being said, a well-trained stallion can certainly behave nicely, even if there are mares around! They are not recommended for most people, because they do take more training and skill to handle.
  3. Stallions usually do not fight to the death. They generally find out who is tougher pretty quickly and the weaker one will back down.
  4. Stallions are not mean or uncontrollable as a rule, but unfortunately their reputation has meant that some people allow them to get away with dangerous behavior!
  5. Some parts of the world don’t commonly castrate stallions and see it as weird. Extra stallions are culled for meat or sold.
  6. Stallions are banned in many boarding barns and facilities, especially those that have children.
  7. If a stallion is gelded before he reaches puberty he will actually grow taller! The extra testosterone in the intact boys causes their growth plates to close earlier.
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Gender-Neutral Horse Terms

The most gender-neutral term for a horse is “horse!” This covers all of your bases – mare, stallion, gelding, colt, or filly! If you’re not sure what it is then you’ll want to reach for “horse.”

horse foal

Source: Canva

What is a foal?

A foal is a baby horse! They can be male or female (or both), but they do have to be less than a year old!

What is a weanling?

A weanling is a horse that is no longer nursing from its mother. Horses are called weanlings sometime between 6 months and 1 year of age.

What is a yearling?

A yearling is exactly what it sounds like! A horse that is at least one year old, but not yet two years of age.

7 Fun Facts About Horse Herd Dynamics

  1. Some horse herds have two stallions! Even though they’re thought of as aggressive animals that drive all other males away, some stallions can be friends even in the presence of mares.
  2. Horse herds are usually run by a dominant mare who tells everyone where to go. She’s usually assertive, but very experienced.
  3. Domestic horse herds do not have the most natural herd dynamic since their members are picked and changed by humans.
  4. A horse is happy when they’re in the position they want within a herd, even if they’re way down at the bottom. Two horses that want the same position can have constant personal issues.
  5. Horses can make best friends and can become very depressed when they’re separated. In domestic horse herds this is often called being “buddy sour.” A buddy sour horse can resist leaving the group and be difficult to ride out alone on.
  6. Stallions can get along well in a bachelor herd. In fact, wild stallions without mares group up together for friendship and safety.
  7. Both colts AND fillies are driven from their parents’ herd once they reach maturity. Scientists think this may be an instinctual way to prevent inbreeding.
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How to Identify Horse Gender

How to identify a female horse

If you’re not sure if the horse you’re looking at is a male or a female, take a peak at their undercarriage! The easiest way to identify a female horse is by the absence of a penis and the presence of a vulva and teats. If you’re not one to take a gander at horse genitals, you can always ask the owner or rider!

How to identify a male horse

As mentioned above – the best way to ask or just take a look! A male horse will have a penis and you can tell a gelding from a stallion by the absence or presence of testicles.

How to identify a cryptorchid horse

Identifying a cryptorchid horse can get a little tricky! If you’ve owned the colt his whole life you may have noticed that he appears to be missing one or both testicles, although this often requires feeling around with your hands. If you hadn’t picked up on it already, your vet will notice when it’s time for the colt to be gelded.

If you recently bought a gelding there are some clues that could point to him being cryptorchid! The biggest red flag is stallion-like behavior. This behavior can also stem from being gelded late in life and/or being used for breeding. The only way to tell for sure is to have a very thorough veterinary exam done. This often requires sedation and palpation (both internal and external) as well as bloodwork to check their hormone levels and ultrasound to search for the hidden testicle.

Frequently Asked Questions

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What is the difference between a colt and a foal?

A colt refers to an immature male horse while a foal refers to a male or female horse that is under a year of age.

What is the difference between a colt and a filly?

A colt is always male while a filly is always female!

What is the difference between a colt and a pony?

A colt is a young male horse and a pony is a horse breed that is under 14.2 hands when full grown! A colt can be a pony, but a pony isn’t always a colt.

What is the difference between a colt and a gelding?

Although “colt” generally refers to a young, intact male horse, you will sometimes see young geldings still referred to as colts. Colt is more specific to age, while gelding is more specific to gender.

What is the difference between a filly and a mare?

A filly is an immature female horse, while a mare is fully grown.

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What is the difference between a foal and a filly?

A foal is a general term for a young horse (under a year of age.) Fillies are young female horses and can be as old as four or five years of age.

What is the difference between a gelding and a stallion?

A gelding is simply a castrated stallion.

What is the difference between a stallion and a mustang?

Mustang is a term for a feral horse found in the western United States that descends from horses brought over by Spain. The amount of Spanish ancestry can vary from herd to herd. A stallion is an intact, mature male horse or any breed or type.

What is the difference between a stallion and a horse?

The word “horse” refers to any member of the species – foal, mare, gelding, etc. Stallion only refers to an intact, adult male horse.

What is the difference between a stallion and a stud?

A stallion is only a stud if he is used for breeding purposes. You may see some people call their stallion a stud, even if he isn’t used for breeding, but the implication is that he is offered, usually commercially, for people to breed their mares to. Stud may also refer to a breeding farm, while stallion is never used for that purpose!

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What is a proud-cut horse?

“Proud-cut” has often been used to describe a gelding that didn’t have his epididymis (or even just all of both testes) removed during castration. They were thought to be infertile, but still have some of that fiery stallion behavior.

Since leaving the epididymis doesn’t mean the gelding still produces testosterone, usually proud-cut geldings are cryptorchid. If you only castrate the descended testicle and leave the internal one, the gelding will still produce stallion hormones even if he’s infertile.

Parting Thoughts

Horses have been such an important part of human civilization for thousands of years it’s no wonder there are so many detailed terms! It can be a bit overwhelming when you are first learning, but all of these terms follow a pattern and make sense.

If you’re hooked on learning horse terms your best bet is to seek out some reputable reference books, because television and movies are notoriously inaccurate! Take your time and you’ll be a horse trivia expert before you know it!

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About the author

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Allison G.

After earning my B.A. in Animal Sciences, I went on to work for an equine vet, volunteer at a therapeutic riding nonprofit, and dabble in equine photography. I now keep two horses at home on my small farm and ride them English and Western. My writing has also be featured on FEI.org.