On the Naming of Horses

This one’s for Brenda, who suggested it.

Names are important to a writer. They matter. What you call your characters influences how your readers react to them–either overtly or more subtly. Given a choice between a wizard named Schmendrick or a wizard named Ingold Inglorion, which would you choose to save your world? Sam Gamgee is the best servant ever, but he’s not going to challenge the King Elessar for his throne.

It’s not just in stories, either. A long time ago, before most people knew about the Internet, there was a study of names in politics. The line I remember is that if Abraham Lincoln had been named Andy Gump, it’s less likely he would have been elected President. People pay attention to things like this, whether they’re aware of it or not.

With horses, both in the real world and the fictional one, there are similar rules and traditions. Bill the pony, Shadowfax the King of the Mearas–there’s a clear distinction there. “On, Bill!” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “On, Shadowfax!”

Writers will do what writers will do when they’re making stuff up, but if they’re going to write about real-world horses, there are different rules for different breeds. Those rules evolve over time, and in some breeds, fashions and familial references can help the enthusiast determine the age and provenance of a horse.

The Jockey Club, which registers Thoroughbreds (by which I don’t mean purebred horses in general, I mean the breed that runs in the Kentucky Derby, fills the hunter show ring, and excels at three-day eventing among other disciplines), has a fairly iconic set of rules. No more than 18 characters or spaces, nothing scatological, JC will choose from a list you submit, and no duplications. This can get challenging considering the hundreds of thousands of names that have been registered over the years. Hence oddities like Seattle  Slew and Funny Cide.

Other breeds operate under other sets of rules. With the Arabian, there are 21 characters and spaces (luxury!), but again, duplication is a no-no. What people do to get around that is provide a farm prefix–either the farm’s name (Fable Ylla) or its initials to save space (AM Sea Captain, where AM stands for Al Marah), and then it’s possible to have Fable Coronado but also TH Coronado. Or the spellings might get strange: Sea Dream, Csea Dream, Cee  Dreme… It can get confusing when there are two nearly identically named horses both competing at the same time: Desperado V and The Desperado were by no means the same horse. But the registry doesn’t allow II or Jr., so spelling and farm names have to cover the bases.

A breed that does allow numerals, in some countries and registries, is the Lipizzan. Hence Gabriella II, Camilla III, 68 Africa, Maestoso XXIX (not to be confused with Maestoso XXIX-11).  This can lead to glazing of eyes and buzzing of brains even in those who know the rules, and such delights as Favory II Gabriella II-2, which takes some explaining.

With this breed, a male horse’s name is his pedigree. (The female gets her own name, but it will be chosen from a traditional set within her bloodline–for some registries, that’s something hopefully Spanish or Italian, no more than 12 letters or spaces, ending in A), or it might begin with the same first letter as her mother’s, or it might not….) He has two names. The first is his direct male line to one of the six founding sires of the breed (Conversano, Favory, Maestoso, Neapolitano, Pluto, Siglavy). The second is his mother’s name. Hence Pluto Carrma, Favory Monteaura, Neapolitano Nima. But, if mom has more than one son in the same sire line, those that follow get Roman numerals: Pluto Carrma III.

And then it gets complicated. Favory II Gabriella II-2 is the second Favory son of  Gabriella II by a stallion who is the second Favory son of another mare.

Nice and confusing, isn’t it? His owner says heckwithit and calls him Gabriel. Which is a good fantasy-horse name, actually.

Other breeds have different rules yet again. Some of the European Verbands or associations of breeders will name all foals of a  year with the same first letter–so it’s a W year, and they’re all W’s, but with another Verband it’s a C year, so everybody is a C. With 26 letters, they figure the names will just be cycling around again when the old generation has died or at least stopped breeding.

Then there are breeds, especially large ones, that tend toward family names. In the American Quarter Horse, apart from a 20-character rule, pretty much anything goes, but there are traditions that some hold dear, and families that come back to the same names over and over: Bar, King, Leo, Lena, Poco, and so on. There can be an almost Lipizzaner sense of pedigree in a name like King Peppy San or Doc O’Lena (by Doc Bar out of Poco Lena–and by the way, a horse is sired by a stallion and comes out of a mare–it’s a Mark of the N00b to do it the other way).There’s been a fad in recent decades of combat-level cutesiness: Ima, Heza, Sheza, as in Ima Little Teapot and Heza Heffalump.

As with children, people naming animals sometimes lose all good sense. It may seem funny at the time to register a foal as Kahunalunadingdong,* but imagine the poor future owner who is stuck hearing that over the loudspeaker at a show–because often, registered names can’t be changed and in breed shows, all the horse’s shame comes out and flaps in the breeze. That’s why the Jockey Club polices the names people send in–though even there, there’s a fair amount of “What were they thinking?” in names like Ivegotabadliver, Dadsalittleunusual, and Cranky Pants. Some registries do likewise, with more or less success, but others pretty much don’t. Hence Bar-Hoppin’ Babe, Girls Gone Bad, and my personal favorite, the great jumper, Legendary Chicken Fairy.

And wouldn’t that be a great name for a fantasy horse?

*I am not making this up.


Judith Tarr writes books about horses, too. Her new book about magical horses, House of the Star, written under the name Caitlin Brennan, is coming from Tor Starscape in November. Also coming in November, exclusively from BVC: Horses for Writers, a writers’ handbook based on this blog.




On the Naming of Horses — 13 Comments

  1. In the circles I move in we debate baby names. My theory is that the name should not limit the baby’s future. Stick the phrase “Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court” in front of the name to make sure; this immediately flushes out names like Moon Unit and King Elvis. I mentioned this theory at a baby shower recently and there was some dissent (Jefferson Lawrence Clough a boring name, surely you should have named him Skywalker?). But the upcoming grandmother of the baby, an iron-spined Korean lady, sat in the back nodding grimly. Number One Grandson should be allowed to rule the world.

  2. The better-bred QHs generally have family names in their pedigrees. It’s not as codified as the Lipizzans (nor do initials or Roman numerals get used), so I suspect that’s in part a contribution to the “Heza, Sheza, Ima” list in the QH world…brains just get tired. Then the Heza/Sheza/Ima gets carried on down…..

    Owner names like “Guthrie” often get carried down, and “Miss/Mr” is also common in QH naming traditions.

    Interesting sequences from Mocha’s pedigree–dam line.

    Her dam–Miss Lorena Wood, by Doctor Wood out of Ducks Princess.

    Ducks Princess by Gay Bar King out of Adoor Barbie.

    Adoor Barbie by Bar the Door out of Diamond Wedding.

    Gay Bar King by Three Bars out of Gay Widow.

    Top line–

    Her sire–Chocolate Chic Olena by Smart Chic Olena out of Jae Bar Felicia.

    Smart Chic Olena by Smart Little Lena out of Gay Sugar Chic.

    Smart Little Lena by Doc O’Lena out of Smart Peppy.

    And so on…

  3. Brenda,

    I am so with soon-to-be grandma here. People are always surprised at what I would have named my children, given the chance, when you figure I’ve had so much fun coming up with naming conventions in books. But how will the name wear? I especially like Elizabeth and Katharine because they have great options for nicknames, depending on what the owner is in the mood for.

    Same with horses. I have a friend who bought a thoroughbred named Hallelujah, but they call her Hallie. Works out just fine.

  4. Human names also need to go reasonably well (without being cutesy) with the surname. My mother went to school with a kid named Royal Jester. His father should have known better, as his name was Courtney.

  5. Mad, the father was probably paying forward with the revenge.

    Kathi and Brenda, my mom’s rule of thumb was, “How will it look after ‘Dr.’ or ‘President’?” One of her cases in point: Dr. Pixie Lee O’Hara.

    Joyce, indeed. The breed is huge, and everybody pretty well does what they want, but there are traditions within the different farms and disciplines.

    With Lipizzans, the rules were not enforced for a while. Hence Plutos Barbi, Gladys, and Dixie, Favory Apple, and Neapolitano Muffin.

  6. I am eternally grateful that I have a Lipizzan gelding, and thus there is no question as to what his name is (Pluto III Shama). I didn’t even have to come up with his barn name (Sammy/Sam) because that came with him, too.

    I confess to vastly enjoying jumper names. Locally there have been some wonders: Loose Wheel Lucille, Mom’s Ferrari, and Beam Me Up Scottie (my personal favorite) come to mind.

    When I was jumping my trainer named a horse he bought MUK210, because that was the license plate on the car in front of him on the way back home from the sale barn. He was clearly completely out of ideas in the naming department!

  7. At least children can intervene when they are older. I don’t think Moon Unit Zappa is still using the name her father socked her with. Any child can announce, “From now on I want to be Jack!” and the uneuphonious Clive Staples is forgotten. Your horse cannot do this, although I suppose the horse does not care — Judy, can you confirm? I read once in the local pet column a letter from a woman who said that her cat kept on rejecting names that she selected for it; she was writing to learn how to find a name the cat liked. The vet suggested just sticking to one name.

  8. She’s calling herself Moon Zappa, Brenda. Is it Dweezil who’s using something else?

    My dog would not respond to any nickname the breeder told me she responded to. She did respond to the one the breeder wanted to keep hidden in shame (the husband had called her by it): Spot. So I have a dog named Spot. And she is happy.

    Horses do respond to their names, are fully as verbal in fact as dogs, and we’re advised (perhaps superstitiously?) not to call them something we’ll regret. Like Buck. Or Thunderbolt. Or Satan. Call them something auspicious, we’re advised.

    In my barn I have a Pooka, a Carrma (Karma was already taken in the registry), a Camilla-the-War-Mare aka the MillaMobile, and a gelding who is registered as Khepera but insists that I call him Moose. I don’t know why (though he is moose-nosed as they say in the trade). Pandora will not answer to Pan or Dora or god forbid Dori, she is PANDORA. And Capria is Capria (ka-PREE-a, for the island) and that is That.

    Some registries will let you change the name with application and of course a fee, but many won’t. Whatever the breeder sacks the horse with, that’s it. Some disciplines will slide around that by having show names, names under which the horses are shown. But if the registry is sticky about name changes, well, Legendary Chicken Fairy it is.

  9. Neapolitano Muffin? MUFFIN? For a Lippizan?!

    Okay, the mind boggles.

    Mocha’s “official” barn name is “Skinny non-fat grande mocha,” as in one of her breeder’s favorite winter drinks. She’s the right color, with blaze, snip and star on her face, and little rabicano sprinkles on her rump, flank and tail. A good barn name for a liver chestnut rabicano.

  10. Ha-Rumph! You malign my dear Birthday Surprise’s Grand Dam! Legendary Chicken Fairy was indeed a legendary Appaloosa mare. :}

    I call Birthday Surprise “Prise”, because she is indeed a prize among horses.

    The Arabian people also do the thing with combining names to come up with a new one. You see it a lot in the *Raffles-bred horses. Garaff, Rafgida (by Raffles out of Imagida), Garalla (by Garaff out of Ylla), etc. There are hundreds of them.

  11. I expect that either index cards or Scrabble tiles are helpful if you need to generate names like that. In fact I would not be surprised to hear of an app for naming horses. An app for Apps…

  12. Heh. There’s also the classic QH champion blue hen race mare and dam of champions, No Butt.

    Considering that a sizeable and powerful rear end is prized amongst QH people, “No Butt” isn’t a surprising name.