A Somewhat Random and Very Incomplete Compendium of Equine Terminology

(c) Lynne Glazer

(c) Lynne Glazer

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:withers_bvc
  • 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.

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A Somewhat Random and Very Incomplete Compendium of Equine Terminology — 14 Comments

  1. Well, the stifle is the equivalent of the knee, so I’ll let that pass – but it’s not where people would expect to find the knee.

    ‘The rider kneeled the horse in the flank’ is the one that gets me. I always expect to see it followed with ‘and was bucked off.’

    Also, please do a post on tack…

  2. An appreciative nitpick: traditionally, colts and fillies become stallions and mares at the age of five. Before that, they are babies, not adults.

  3. Hey, Judy 😀

    One term we use(d) was “long yearling”, which was a horse between 1½ and 2 years of age.

    Hoof — Fionna has pancake hooves in front. Almost perfectly round 😀

  4. green_knight: If you’re on a horse and kneeing him in the flank, you’ve definitely removed your prosthetic leg to get the job done. THEN you get bucked off.

    Ambar: Where I’m from, it’s age four.

    Good point, Eileen.

    Glad all this is helpful to writers and the curious.I’ll keep it going. Tack is on the list, for sure.

  5. Isn’t there something above the forearm and gaskin? I’d always figured that a horse’s skeleton probably had a different version of my own limbs. Shoulder, upper arm, elbow, forearm–hip, upper leg, knee, gaskin, something like that?

  6. Pate, the rear joint right up at the flank is the stifle. That’s what green_knight was referring to. The horse’s leg is vastly attenuated in human terms. He walks on his middle toenail (of an original five). One vestigial nail (called the “ergot”) grows at the point of the fetlock, there are two vestigial toes inside the cannon, and then the fifth is the callosity up near the knee or hock, aka the chestnut. His whole lower leg from the knee or hock downward corresponds to the human hand or foot. The knee would be the wrist, and the hock corresponds to the ankle.

    The actual knee joint of the horse is the stifle. It has a patella and everything.

  7. Also Pete, the horses elbow and shoulder are “out of sight” so to speak. the elbow is right at the top of the foreleg and the shoulder is well… the giant slab above the elbow that connects the front end to the middle hahaha

  8. and who belongs to those lovely withers?! (I have a guess, but, well, I have heard that someone else GREW a set of withers and so I don’t want to offend anyone).

  9. Oh, that is just cool. Thank you!

    Raithen, that’s Pandora, whose withers (like the rest of her) are Magnificent. Pooka, who popped up a set in adulthood, startling even his masseuse, doesn’t illustrate the concept nearly as well. (And explaining how he did that might be a bit too complicated for a lexicon that’s trying to be simple.)

  10. Another couple of parts that are sometimes mentioned:

    Poll – the area at top of the horses head, just behind the ears.

    Dock – the solid part at the base of the tail, which the long tail hairs grow out of.

    Loin – the area of the back, behind the saddle and in front of the pelvis.

    Forelock – kind of obvious, but the hank of hair that hangs down the face from between the ears; reaches roughly to the level of the eyes. Basically the very front part of the mane.

    Finally, entire is sometimes used as a synonym for stallion.