A Beginner’s Guide to All Things Horses
Maybe it’s due to humans’ 6,000+ year history with Equus caballus, but some of us are simply captivated by horses from the moment we first lay eyes on them.
Horses’ beauty and strength are the very definition of majestic, and it’s no wonder why we love them.
If you want to learn all you can about horses, this is the perfect starter guide for you! Learn about horse history and biology, how to care for them, and the basics of riding in this beginners’ guide to all things horses.
Thanks to Sarah Harris for our feature photo!
Horse History & Evolution
Fifty-five million years ago, horses resembled a dog-sized deer with four toes on each foot. Over time, they grew in size and all but one of their toes faded away.
That’s right, a horse’s hoof is just one very large toe!
Modern-day horse relatives include donkeys and zebras, but horses also share a distant genetic connection to rhinos and tapirs.
The first horses were believed to have been domesticated in the modern-day Ukraine and Kazakhstan regions more than 6,000 years ago.
It can be argued that the domestication of the horse helped advance humanity itself.
How else would we have been able to travel long distances in shorter amounts of time, plow large fields, and even engage in warfare if it weren’t for the horse? Although other “beasts of burden” exist, such as camels and cows, horses proved to be the most versatile, and they’ve been part of our history for a long time.
In fact, it’s only been in the last century that horses have transitioned from working animals to recreational animals.
Now, many horses are kept as pets and, apart from putting up with our competitive whims, really aren’t expected to put in a hard day’s work. (We doubt many of them are complaining!)
FAQ: Are Horses Mammals?
Yes, horses are mammals.
Like all mammals, they have hair, don’t lay eggs, and nurse and care for their young until they’re old enough to fend for themselves.
FAQ: Is a Horse Considered Livestock?
Yes, horses are still considered livestock — even though many people keep them for recreational or pleasure purposes.
FAQ: Is a Horse a Domestic Animal?
Yes, horses have been specifically bred by humans for different physical traits and temperaments.
Even “wild” horses, like Mustangs, originally came from domesticated horses.
Horses have some common and easily identifiable body parts like eyes, ears, tails, and bellies.
They also have some unique body parts, such as:
- Withers: The area of the spine just above their shoulder blades, between the base of the neck and the start of the back.
- Fetlocks: The joint where the cannon bone, proximal sesamoid bones, and first phalanx (long pastern bone) meet.
- Stifles: The area where the tibia meets the femur. Think of a stifle like a human knee.
- Pastern: The area between the hoof and the fetlock joint.
- Croup: The topline and muscles of the horse’s hindquarters, starting at the hip and ending at the dock of the tail.
- Frog: A triangle-shaped area under each hoof that helps supply blood flow to the surrounding tissues while also absorbing shock when the hooves hit the ground.
In addition, you might hear horses identified using the following terms:
- Stallion: A male horse that still has its testicles and can reproduce.
- Mare: A female horse
- Gelding: A male horse whose testicles have been removed and cannot reproduce. Geldings are typically much calmer and easier to manage than stallions.
Horse Colors & Markings
Horses come in a gorgeous array of colors and markings, and each one has a name.
Some common coat colors include:
- Bay: A brown or reddish-brown coat with a black mane, tail, and lower legs.
- Palomino: A golden coat with a white or creamy colored mane and tail.
- Chestnut: A red coat with no black areas. Some breed associations prefer to use the word “sorrel” to describe a horse of this color.
- Black: A truly black horse has a black coat, mane, and tail. But many “black” horses are actually just very dark bays!
- Grey: A grey horse can either be grey like a storm cloud or snow white. Both are called grey!
- Roan: Roan describes a horse who has white hairs interspersed with their base coat color.
Some common markings include:
- Sock: A white wrap that goes midway up the lower leg.
- Stocking: A taller white wrap that extends mid-leg.
- Star: A white patch in the middle of the forehead, between the eyes.
- Snip: A white spot on the nose between the nostrils.
- Blaze: A large white line down the front of the face.
If a horse has patches of white on its body, it is considered a pinto or paint. The three pinto variations are tobiano, overo, and tovero and vary based on where the white patches appear.
If a horse has spots, the spots are described based on their pattern, including leopard, blanket, snowflake, and few spot.
Horses are prey animals, which means that other animals hunt them in the wild for food.
A wild horse has to make quick decisions in the face of danger to save its life.
This mentality is called the “fight or flight” instinct, because horses can either stay and fight or run away when threatened.
As our pets and partners, horses have to learn to largely overcome this instinct to remain manageable and safe, even when they’re unsure about circumstances that make them nervous.
Like many prey animals, horses live in herds as a way to protect themselves. There’s safety in numbers, as the saying goes!
In order for horses to live together harmoniously, there have to be rules.
Horse herds follow a dominance hierarchy. This means that the individuals highest in the hierarchy can access more resources, whereas those lower in the hierarchy have to get out of the way and wait their turn when food, water, and other resources are in limited supply.
Typically, a herd consists of a stallion, a few mares, and youngsters up to around two or three years old.
Read all about these differences. in our horse gender guide for beginners.
The stallion’s job is to fight off threats, but the day-to-day decisions about where to eat, drink, sleep, or play are usually made by one particular mare, called the lead or boss mare.
Horses primarily communicate through body language. Their ear position makes their mood pretty clear, for example:
- Ears perked all the way forward: alert and interested in what’s behind them.
- Ears pinned flat to their head: a major warning sign that the horse is unhappy about something!
- Ears to the side: relaxed and not worried.
- Ears pointing behind them but not flat: focused on what’s behind them, such as listening to the rider.
Horses also bite or nip to move each other out of the way, but sometimes they use their teeth in play and to groom each other too.
When they rest one back leg on the tip of their hoof, they are super relaxed.
But when they lift up one back leg and wiggle it around, they’re upset and threatening to kick!
It can take many hours of observation to learn all the nuances of horse body language. But, make no mistake, horses communicate with humans all the time.
Once you know what to look for, you’ll know exactly what kind of mood your horse is in at any given moment.
Horses have five senses, just like humans: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
In particular, horses have a great sense of smell and can identify each other by their unique scents.
Whiskers on their nose and face help them explore their environment physically.
Their ears swivel approximately 180 degrees to focus on sounds around them.
They can also see almost a full 360 degrees around them, with blind spots directly in front and behind them, and have good night vision.
Finally, horses’ sense of taste helps them detect edible plants – and they also have a sweet tooth!
FAQ: Are Horses Color Blind
Horses can see blue, yellow, and green.
They cannot, on the other hand, distinguish red, orange, purple, or pink.
A horse’s intelligence is hard to quantify, but it’s easy to say that they are incredible communicators.
If you demonstrate to your horse that you’re willing to listen to what he has to say, you may be surprised about the opinions he expresses and the requests he makes, whether telling you he’s confused, in pain, wants to do something fun, or really, really, REALLY wants that cookie in your pocket.
Researchers have conducted various experiments to study intelligence in horses.
For example, a Norwegian study allowed horses to communicate their blanketing preferences. The horses were able to tell their caretakers whether they wanted to wear a blanket during cold weather or not, revealing a wide range of personal preferences.
Other studies have also shown that horses are adept at reading emotions in human faces and aren’t shy about asking their caretakers for help (especially help accessing a hidden carrot!).
In short, a horse can think for itself, and it’s truly amazing that horses are so willing to do what we ask and play our “silly games.” (Surely, they wonder why we like going in circles so much.)
FAQ: Are Horses Smarter Than Dogs
This is a tough question! It’s hard to directly compare two species, especially when there are sharper and not-so-sharp individuals within each species.
Like dogs, horses can learn to respond to words, body language, and formal cues.
Horses and dogs have different ways of interacting with one another, which means different training styles have evolved to teach them new skills. But both species can learn an extraordinary range of behaviors.
There is nothing that definitively makes horses smarter than dogs or vice versa.
Although it depends on the trends within a particular discipline, many horses are not considered old enough to ride until they are about 3-4 years old.
That means most horses have at least 20 years of riding adventures ahead of them!
You’ll also see these terms used to describe a horse’s age range:
- Foal: A baby horse between 0-6 months of age.
- Weanling: A horse around the age of 6 months to a year who no longer needs its mother’s milk.
- Yearling: A horse between the ages of 1-2 years.
A horse’s “gait” describes the sequence and rhythm in which the hooves strike the ground.
The four basic gaits are the walk (4 beats), trot (2 beats), canter (3 beats), and gallop (4 beats).
Most horses have only these four basic gaits, but some breeds are born with the ability to perform additional special gaits. These are called “gaited” horses.
Gaited horses can, depending on the specific breed, perform the pace (2 beats), rack or tölt (4 beats), and foxtrot (4 beats), among other variations.
Here’s an example of gaited horse movements:
Popular Horse Breeds
There are many beautiful and versatile breeds around the world, but some breeds are more popular than others.
The American Quarter Horse is the most popular breed in the United States, thanks to its even temperament and athletic ability.
Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, and Paints are other breeds with many fans around the world.
Want to learn more about specific breeds? Check out:
- Say Yes to the Horse: 11 Best Breeds for First-Time Owners
- 3 Best Horse Breeds for Older Riders
- Friendly & Fun: 4 Best Horse Breeds for Beginners
- 5 Rare Horse Breeds You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
- Keep Calm & Ride On: Meet the 5 Calmest Horse Breeds
Basic Horse Care
It’s true that horses can live in the wild thanks to their strong survival instincts. When they’re in our care, however, and housed in our barns or fields, they rely on us to provide food, water, shelter, exercise, and medical attention to keep them healthy and safe.
Housing & Shelter
Some horses are quite happy to live outside in a big field all day and all night. Regardless, they should always have some type of shelter that will protect them from the rain or wind.
Shelter can be a run-in shed, a group of trees, or a fancy barn.
You may be surprised to see horses happily eating grass in the middle of a downpour, but not all weather bothers them the way it bothers humans. That said, sometimes horses choose to seek shelter, so it’s important that they have that option.
Sometimes it’s easier to feed and manage horses by bringing them into a barn at night or for part of the day.
Inside a barn, each horse has an individual stall, which typically measures 12 feet by 12 feet and gives the horse plenty of room to turn around and lie down on straw or wood shavings.
Stalls allow horses who are regularly ridden to stay a little bit cleaner, prevent overweight horses from eating too much, and stop greedy horses from stealing food from meeker horses.
Regardless of whether horses live in a field or in a stall (or both), their area should be kept clean and safe at all times.
Feed & Water
Horses need access to fresh, clean, and unfrozen water at all times. Automatic waterers are a convenient option, but many horse owners fill buckets or troughs with a hose to provide water.
Horses also need to eat foods with proper nutrition – often and a lot!
A typical horse will eat about 20 pounds of hay or grass each day. If the horse is also regularly ridden or worked, then some extra energy is provided in the form of a concentrated feed, called grain or sweet feed.
In addition, horses need some vitamins and minerals to round out their diet. These can be provided in the horse’s daily grain or offered as a “salt block” that the horse licks at will.
FAQ: Is a Horse a Carnivore, Herbivore, or Omnivore?
, which means they only eat plants. Not all plants, however, are safe for horses to eat.
Grooming keeps a horse’s coat clean and shiny and prevents irritation when the saddle is put on. Grooming also feels really good to the horse!
A daily grooming routine can also help horse owners catch medical problems like cuts or swollen areas.
Typical grooming starts with a curry comb, which brings dirt and hair to the surface. Then, a dandy brush is used to flick the loose dirt and hair off the coat.
For an extra shine, you can use a soft body brush in smooth motions all over the horse.
Next, it’s important to pick the horse’s hooves, which means that dirt, rocks, and other debris are removed from the space under the hoof.
If the hooves aren’t cleaned regularly, this debris can cause problems like lameness or an infection.
Brushing out the horse’s mane and tail is optional and best tackled with a lot of patience and detangler. Braiding a long mane and tail can be a fun way to keep it clean and out of the way.
Horses can also get baths and haircuts. Typically, horses receive a lot more pampering before going to a show so that they look their absolute best.
Did you know that horses only need about 3 hours of deep sleep per day? If they have the chance to do so, they’ll spend the vast majority of their time eating.
Horses lightly doze throughout the day, but they also need deep R.E.M. sleep.
Horses can also sleep standing up, which helps them quickly react to threats in the wild.
As long as they feel it’s safe to do so, though, many horses enjoy laying down to catch some Zs and enter the R.E.M. phase of sleep.
In fact, when pastured with other horses, laying down to sleep becomes a social affair.
A farrier or trimmer looks after the health of a horse’s hooves.
Just like our fingernails, a horse’s hooves grow constantly.
With consistent exercise, their hooves wear down naturally — though not necessarily evenly. An uneven hoof can create balance issues, so it’s important that horses receive trims every 6 to 8 weeks.
Some horses wear their hooves down too much, and this can cause pain and tenderness. These horses need to wear shoes, which are traditionally metal. They can also be made of rubber.
Shoes can be nailed through the hoof, which doesn’t hurt the horse, or glued on.
Did you know horses have dentists? The purpose of an equine dentist isn’t to clean a horse’s teeth into a pearly-white smile though.
Horse teeth wear down over time and create sharp edges that can be painful for the horse and make it hard for them to chew. Equine dentists are tasked with making sure horses can chew their food properly.
When an equine dentist “floats” teeth, they file down those sharp edges.
All kinds of supplements exist to make sure horses get the nutrition they need.
Sometimes it’s hard to find quality hay that’s well-balanced in terms of vitamins and minerals. Supplements fill in the gaps.
Horse owners have a ton of options to choose from, and it’s wise to consult a vet about what each individual horse needs.
For example, some horses can benefit from a supplement that helps them grow stronger hooves. Others need a supplement to help them gain weight. You can even feed supplements that make flies stay away from your horse!
Horses come in contact with all kinds of invisible bugs while they eat grass.
Sometimes they end up ingesting parasites called worms.
These include tapeworms, roundworms, and bot fly larva. The worms make themselves at home in the horse’s digestive system and steal their nutrients. If left unchecked, these parasites can cause a horse to lose weight or have a dull, itchy coat.
Therefore, horses should receive a wormer every 6 to 8 weeks.
Just like humans, dogs, and cats, horses can be vaccinated against common diseases. Horses have long lifespans, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever live in the same place with the same horses their entire life.
They’ll be exposed to plenty of new horses – and to contagious diseases.
Whether you take your horse to shows or not, vaccinations are a good idea. Numerous vaccinations exist for horses, including rabies, tetanus, botulism, and encephalitis.
Common Health Issues
Horses are both strong and fragile at the same time. In particular, they’re prone to stomach aches, which is a condition known as colic.
Because horses are unable to vomit, if they eat something that doesn’t agree with them, they have no way to quickly evacuate it.
In the best-case scenario, the horse will simply feel great discomfort, but sometimes colic can be fatal.
A horse is also only as healthy as its hooves, so even a minor hoof problem can cause a horse to limp around. A limping horse is called a lame horse.
Hoof abscesses are common, but some individuals are more prone to them than others.
Another hoof condition, called founder, occurs when a horse eats too much sugar (found in both grass and grain), which causes crippling inflammation in their feet.
Horses can also get a variety of skin conditions.
And, just like humans, sometimes they feel a little under the weather with a runny nose and cough.
Horse Tack & Supplies
The equipment used to ride a horse is called “tack.”
Did you know that some people can ride their horses with no tack at all? For the rest of us, a saddle provides extra security and balance, while a bridle helps us clearly communicate our wishes to the horse.
Basic tack includes:
- A saddle: There are many different types designed for different disciplines, but they fall into three major categories: English, Western, and Australian.
- A saddle pad: This protects the horse’s back, keeps the saddle clean and also helps absorb the horse’s sweat.
- Girth or cinch: This wraps around the horse’s rib cage and secures the saddle.
- Stirrups: Your feet rest in the stirrups and help you balance effectively in the saddle.
- Bit: This is the metal piece that sits inside the horse’s mouth
- Reins: You hold onto one end of the reins, and the other end attaches to the bit.
- Bridle: This sits on the horse’s head and holds the bit in place.
Photo Credit: Mya Brathwaite
Learn more about horse gear by reading:
- Best Saddles for Hard-to-Fit Quarter Horses
- 16 Common Types of Horse Bits
- 6 Best Saddle Pads for Trail Riding (And Happy Horses)
- Head-to-Tail Buyer’s Guide to the Best Horse Riding Gear
Other useful supplies that you’ll need to care for a horse include:
- Grooming equipment, including brushes, a hoofpick, and bathing supplies
- Feeding supplies, including a water bucket, a feed bucket, a feed scoop, a rodent-proof grain storage bin, a mineral block, and of course hay and grain.
- Stall cleaning supplies, including a muck bucket, a pitch fork, a bucket brush, and some sort of bedding.
- Health supplies, including dewormer, an emergency kit, and fly spray.
- Blankets and sheets as needed, including a heavy winter blanket, a lightweight rain sheet, and a fly sheet.
- Riding apparel and a helmet.
Of course, if you step into a tack shop, you’ll quickly learn that there are tons of supplies available for horses. You don’t need a huge collection in order to be a good horse owner.
Horse Exercise & Riding
Even horses who live outside 24/7 — free to move around as they please – can benefit from an exercise routine, including riding.
Exercise keeps horses physically healthy and prevents their joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles from being injured during a burst of activity.
also keeps horses mentally stimulated and introduces them to a lot of new and fun environments.
The process of putting tack on a horse is called “tacking up.”
- First, the horse must be thoroughly groomed to prevent any dirt from causing irritation once the saddle is on.
- It’s also a good idea to put your helmet on now before you forget.
- Next, the saddle pad is placed on the horse’s back, followed by the saddle.
- The girth goes under the chest and is attached relatively loosely at first, then gradually tightened prior to getting on.
- Finally, the bridle goes on.
- After one last check of the girth to make sure it’s tight, you can mount up!
Some horses wear additional tack, like a breastplate to keep the saddle extra secure, or a martingale to prevent the horse from raising its head too high.
Some riders also put protective gear like wraps or boots on their horse’s legs or add a fly bonnet over the ears prevent the horse from shaking its head due to irritation from flies.
Although helpful in many situations, none of this extra gear is strictly necessary to just go have a fun ride with your horse!
Horses are big animals that typically weigh over 1,000 pounds.
You don’t want to get run over, stepped on, or kicked by a horse, so it’s important to follow some basic safety precautions when working around them.
- Always be aware of where your feet are in relation to the horse’s hooves. Don’t get too close.
- Never wrap a lead rope around your hand.
- Do not sneak up on a horse. Say hello as you approach so they know you’re coming or knock on the stall door before entering, and be sure to walk up to their shoulder, not to their hind legs.
- Don’t let your horse “say hi” to another horse when you’re on the ground, just in case either of the horses decides to bite, strike, or kick at the other. Maintain a personal space bubble around you and your horse.
- Be mindful to not let the reins drag on the ground as you’re putting the bridle on. If the horse steps on them, the reins could break AND the horse could hurt its mouth, causing it to panic.
When we ride horses, we have to follow even more safety rules.
Every rider falls off, but it’s smart to avoid a fall due to a simple mistake and to protect ourselves from injury when possible.
- Always check and re-check your girth before getting on, or the saddle may shift and throw you off balance as you ride.
- Make sure you are wearing appropriate safety gear: shoes with a heel and a helmet are non-negotiable. A safety vest, gloves and chaps, half-chaps or tall boots are wise additions to your riding wardrobe.
- Many English saddles have a stirrup bar that can be adjusted for safety. In the event of a fall, this bar allows the entire stirrup leather to slide off the saddle, preventing you from getting dragged if your foot gets stuck. Inspect your saddle and look for a hinge on the back of the stirrup bar, and push it down so the stirrup leather can slide off in an emergency.
- If your saddle does not have this special stirrup bar, consider getting safety stirrups. These come in several different styles and are meant to prevent you from getting dragged.
Finally, a well-trained horse and rider will have an easier time staying safe than an unruly horse and a beginner rider. So, even if you are just starting out, take heart: you’ll feel more and more secure in the saddle the more you practice.
- Learn how to do an emergency dismount, which can help you bail off your horse if you ever feel out of control.
- Learn how to do different groundwork exercises with your horse so that he respects your space and easily moves away from you when asked.
- Teach your horse to stand still at the mounting block – even after you’ve settled into the saddle – to prevent any mounting mishaps.
- Learn how to perform an emergency one-rein stop, which can help you immediately slow down or stop a horse that is going too fast or is simply not listening to you.
Finally, never, ever hesitate to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed or scared.
Riding is supposed to be fun! Everyone can benefit from the help of an experienced trainer. In fact, it’s really the only way to improve and build confidence.
You’re on a horse, your feet are in the stirrups, and the reins are in your hands. Now what?
You have many different ways to control a horse, including your hands, legs, and body weight, and even the rhythm in which you move your body.
Horses with advanced training learn to move specific parts of their body in particular ways based on exactly where our legs touch them, how the reins are moved, and how we shift our weight in the saddle.
When you first start out, though, you only need to know a few basic things: how to start, how to stop, and how to steer.
To ask a horse to go forward:
- Your hands need to move forward so that you are not accidentally pulling back and trying to “ride with the brakes on.”
- Your legs need to close firmly around the horse’s rib cage. Some horses are more sensitive than others, so ask gently at first, but don’t be afraid to give a kick if your horse is snoozin’ and ignoring you. As soon as the horse goes forward, relax your legs.
- Don’t forget to sit up tall to maintain your balance! Relax your hips so they move with the horse.
To ask a horse to stop:
- Your hands need to move toward your belly button (but if they actually reach your belly button, you need to grip the reins closer toward the horse’s head).
- Your body weight needs to shift backwards, which can be accomplished by leaning your shoulders back. You’ll also feel your pelvis tip up so that you’re not sitting directly on your seat bones.
- Your legs should be relaxed, otherwise you’ll send mixed signals!
To tell a horse where to go:
- Look where you’re going, but not with your eyes! Turn your entire head. If you want to turn around, look way over your shoulder, not just where the horse’s next few steps should be. When you do this, your body weight shifts in the saddle and the horse can feel it. It’s a huge clue to the horse that you want to go somewhere!
- Move both of your hands together in the direction that you want to go, being sure that you do not accidentally pull back while you do so. Move your hands sideways or push them forward a little bit instead. (As you get more advanced, your hands will have another important job to do, but for now, this is a sure-fire way to help tell a horse where to go.)
- Your legs can also help guide a horse. Think about which leg could push the horse toward where you want it to go, and apply a bit of pressure with that leg.
English Riding Disciplines
You don’t have to follow any particular style in order to have fun with your horse.
If you’d like to go to a competition, though, you’ll need to prepare for a particular discipline.
Common English Riding Disciplines:
- English pleasure
- Three-day eventing
Common Western Riding Disciplines:
- Western pleasure
- Western horsemanship
- Ranch horse riding
- Western dressage
- Competitive trail
- Cattle sorting, cutting, penning, working, and roping
- Barrel racing, pole bending and other timed “contest” sports
Learn about even more types of western riding!
Taking your horse to a competition or a fun place to ride requires you to put them into a special trailer that is pulled behind a truck.
Horse trailers typically have narrow stalls for the horse to stand in, including panels that the horse can lean against.
Because many horses are wary of tight spaces, they need to be taught to calmly and confidently walk into a trailer and to also back off of the trailer as well.
Because horses can bump their heads, legs, and tails against the walls of a trailer, they can wear special protective gear to make sure they arrive at their destination safe and sound, including a head bumper, tail guard, and shipping boots.
If you’re still reading (kudos!), chances are that you’re truly a horse enthusiast. But there’s one more thing you should consider — what horses cost.
Spoiler alert: horses cost a lot.
Expenses vary from state to state and horse to horse. We can offer some basic guidelines, though, so you know whether ownership is an option or if you want to get your horse fix another way.
Annual Estimated Cost of Owning a Horse
|Housing||$1,200 – $9,000|
|Feeding (may be covered by board housing fees)||$0 – $1,500 grain, $0 – $3,650 hay|
|Routine Veterinary Care||$200 – $500|
|Farrier||$300 – $2,750|
|Dentist||$95 – $235|
|Total Annual Estimate||$1,795 – $17,635|
Read more details in our article about What Horses Cost & How You Can Actually Afford One.
Now you’ve got a solid start to your equestrian education. Don’t let your knowledge stop here, though. Check our some of Horse Rookie’s most popular articles here.
References & Further Reading:
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- How to Ride a Horse for Beginners (Basics, Safety, Mistakes)
- Horse Photography (Pro Tips, Settings, Editing, Examples)
- How Horses Sleep: A to Zzzz Guide to Equine Rest
- How Much Do Horses Cost & How You Can Actually Afford One
- I Want a Horse But Can’t Afford One. Now What?