All too often when writers tackle the arcana of the equine in their novels and stories, they miss the nuances of the terminology. Then the reader is treated to a female gelding, a male mare, or a rider moving a horse forward by kneeing it in the flank.
We’ll be adding to this list every so often as we go on. Today’s contribution aims at the basics–the terms every writer should keep on file for the times when the story can’t avoid referring to the transportation.
Let’s start with the horse as a unit.
- A stallion is an unaltered adult male, three or four years old or older. If he is used for breeding, he may be called a stud (which may also, especially in Europe, refer to the farm on which he stands at stud–a stud or stud farm).
- A mare is an adult female, three or four years old or older.
- A gelding is a castrated male of any age.
- A foal is a baby horse of any gender. This term refers to the unweaned baby, up to about six months old.
- A colt can be a foal of any gender, but is usually applied to a male. Those who use the term generically may call a male a stud colt.
- A filly is a young female horse.
- A weanling is a weaned foal. In modern times, weaning takes place around six months of age. Some breeders wean earlier, some later, but six months is a reasonable average. The term applies up to first birthday, when the young horse becomes a yearling. Thereafter, it is a two-year-old and a three-year-old, and then it’s a mare, a stallion, or a gelding.
Now, as far as the parts of the horse go, it’s probably best to keep it simple. No need to get into the finer points of the nuchal ligament or the coffin bone. But, some terms may be unavoidable.
- The withers in my experience are often a mystery, and I’m often asked, “What are they?” They’re a prominent development of the spine, they’re located at the base of the neck, and they’re extremely useful for keeping the saddle from rolling off the horse’s back and under his belly (voice of experience here–some horses are more nobly blessed withers than others, who may not have any to speak of). They’re the point at which the horse is measured–when we say he’s X number of hands (a hand = four inches) tall, we’re measuring him from the ground to the top of the withers. This is also the strongest part of the horse, and his center of balance will usually be right behind it. This is a truly magnificent set of withers:
- The barrel is the midsection of the horse–the ribcage. The rider’s legs will hang down the barrel, and he will tighten or kick with the calf to make the horse go. The flank is quite a bit to the rear of that: it’s the hollow portion between the last ribs and the beginning of the hindleg. For a rider to knee a horse in the flank, he would have to remove his leg at the hip and move it back two or three feet. Even if he’s riding double on a short-backed horse and is the one in the rear, his knee will need to drop a foot or two in order to make this possible. From the ground, on the other hand, provided the horse is short and the rider is tall (and doesn’t mind the prospect of getting kicked over the moon, because a horse can kick up and sideways), he may manage it. It’s not recommended. Horses tend to be sensitive in that area.
Most of the remaining parts are self-evident. When we get to the legs, however, there may be some confusion.
- The horse has knees in front and hocks in the back. There are no “back knees.”
- The upper part of the front leg is the forearm. The upper part of the back leg is the gaskin.
- The lower part of each leg below the knee or hock is the cannon (fore cannon, hind cannon).
- The joint just below this, right before the leg bends toward the hoof, is the fetlock.
- The slanty part between the fetlock and the hoof is the pastern.
- And finally, the underside of the hoof has a V-shaped shock absorber with a rubbery texture. This is called the frog. The whole half-ton or more of horse is supported on those relatively small*, round hooves and those little frogs (two to three inches long and an inch to an inch and a half wide in a normal-sized adult horse).
*A decent-sized hoof for an average horse is four and a half to five inches wide by five to five and a half inches long–the hoof tends to be somewhat oval, especially in the rear. In front, where the majority of the horse’s weight is concentrated, the hoof may be somewhat larger and noticeably rounder.
Next week we’ll tackle the next layer: horse structure and function, and why colic is so dangerous and what founder is and why it’s such a bad thing.