Monday, March 31, 2014

What Does Harness Look Like?

This one's for the illustrators. I've seen some very inaccurate depictions of horses in harness, so I'm going to pull up some visual aids here and talk about it.

There are several kinds of horse harness. One of the big differences is whether a collar is used or not - collars provide a more effective pull, but are heavy on horses that might be asked to go fast.

Image source: Amanda Slater via Wikimedia Commons.

So, let's start with this. These are plow horses, although they are wearing "show" harness - probably for a plowing contest. The weight of the plow is settled on the collars around the horse's neck. The horse collar is a very efficient and comfortable (for the horse) way to have an equine pull weight. The stiff framework supporting the collar is called the "hames". The plow itself is attached to chains which are connected to the sides of the collar. Chains are used because their weight helps them fall into place better than straps or ropes. The chains run through a strap around the horse's body, which in harness terms is the "saddle". A strap along the back supports britching, and there's also a strap between the horse's legs. All of this is to keep the saddle and collar from slipping. The decorated brass discs are called "horse brasses" and are an old British tradition. The blinkers help keep the horses from spooking and being distracted.

Image source: Rooh23 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a horse pulling a cart in collar harness - you can see the same collar and a similar bridle, but this particular harness has no saddle. Instead, it has two straps over the back which support the shafts, which are then also secured to the collar. Again, the weight of the cart rests primarily on the collar. The rest is all to stop stuff moving and, in this case, to prevent the shafts from moving up and down.

Image source: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons.

A rather more typical horse-drawn carriage - note the short chains between the end of the shaft and the collar (which is also a much lighter collar). This harness does have the more typical collar. As this is a double, the single shaft runs between the horses - this is typical.

This is "breast" or "breast collar" harness - the weight of the cart is supported on a strap across the horse's chest. This kind of harness weighs less than a collar and is easier to put on, but isn't efficient or comfortable for heavy weight. In this picture, note the lack of breeching - instead, there's a crupper which runs under the horse's tail. Also note that both this team and the one above appear to be wearing bonnets - those are to keep the flies out of the horses' ears.

Either of these would be correct for a typical horse-drawn carriage pulled by a pair of horses.

Image source: Vickusin, via Wikimedia Commons.

This shows a four-in-hand in modern competition. Here, the shafts are on the outside of the back pair of horses, called the "wheel" pair. There are no shafts next to the front or "lead" pair. Note the strap holding the lead pair together - this is to keep them straight and at the correct distance from each other without shafts in the equation. The driver here also has two sets of reins or "lines" - one for each pair of horses. This allows him to turn the front pair separately from the rear pair when making tight turns. This sort of setup would be correct for a stage coach or large carriage with four (or more) horses.

Image source: Marjon Kruik via Wikimedia Commons.

A slightly different setup, also correct. The shaft is between the wheel pair and the horses are rigged out with breast collars rather than neck collars.

Image source: Benny Mazur via Wikimedia Commons.

When four horses isn't enough. A six-up of draft horses pulling a wagon - this would be a correct setup for large scale farm deliveries. The shaft runs between the second and third pairs of horses. (The middle pair is called the swing pair). Hitches of eight or even ten horses are known. Just add horsepower...

Image source: Quistnix via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a more unusual setup - a tandem of ponies. It also shows very classic britching very well on the first pony.

And another less common arrangement - a four abreast of Norwegian Fjords. Image source: Pete Markham via Wikimedia Commons.

Image source: Jon via Wikimedia Commons.

Today we design cars with a barrier between the chauffeur and the inhabitants so they can talk freely. This is how they used to do it. This arrangement is called "postilion" and the driver, instead of being in the carriage, is riding one of the horses. The downside - you needed one rider for each pair of horses, and postilion was mostly abandoned - but is still occasionally used, as seen here, by the British royal family. But if your characters don't want the coachman to overhear them...

Image source: Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons.

This is racing harness and is quite different! The shafts are secured to the saddle and the "collar" is a single strap around the horse's neck with a strap between its legs. There are two sets of shafts. (Again, note the ear bonnet). The cart being pulled here is called a "bicycle sulky" and weighs no more than 40 pounds, so there's no need for heavy straps on the harness. This kind of harness is only seen in modern harness racing.

And last one, I promise:

This is actually a training setup. The saddle and britches are present and the lines are tucked through the saddle, but there's no collar. This setup is used for "ground driving" a horse - which is done as part of training before putting a driving horse to a cart and also used by some people to train riding horses.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What Are Horse Patterns Called?

Like everything else with horse terminology, there are regional definitions. What I'm calling a patterned horse is one that has patches of dark or light color and/or spots on its coat. Humans have bred spotted or patched coats into all of our domestic animals, and horses are no exception.

Spotted or patterned horses are split into two groups:

1. Horses with large patches of color on a white coat (or vice versa).
2. Horses with either small spots of color on a white coat or vice versa, or a frosted blanket over the hindquarters.

The first group are called "pintos" in the United States. You may also hear them called "paints" - but that's a specific breed and the term should really not be used for horses not registered with the American Paint Horse Association. In England they are called piebald if their color is black, skewbald if it is anything else.

A pinto draft cross.

The second group are referred to as "spotted" horses in England. Confusingly, though, most Americans use "spotted" for any horse with markings across its body. In America, they are usually called appaloosas, whether or not they are of the Appaloosa breed.

An Appaloosa mare with a "spotted blanket".

A horse can also fall into both groups, which is generally called a "pintaloosa."

In the United States some more precise terms are used for different kinds of pinto.

Tobiano horses have markings somewhat similar to tuxedo or spotted cats.

A tobiano American Paint.

Frame overo horses have markings that are "framed" by the edge of the body. This is sometimes just called overo, but overo is also used for any pinto horse that is not tobiano. The mnemonic I was taught was that an overo horse has no white "over" the back - white on overo horses never crosses the line of the spine on the back.

Image source:

Sabino horses have white that starts on the belly and flanks. In most cases it stays there, but some sabino horses only have dark coloring on the top of their heads (medicine hat) and a few are pure white. Others have white hair through their body. Confusingly, sabino is called roan (along with true roan) in the UK.

Sabino is classic for the Clydesdale breed as this horse demonstrates. Image source: USDA.

Splashed white horses have white across the front part of the belly and the chest.

Horses with more than one kind of pinto are sometimes called tovero. The black and white pinto above is either tobiano or tovero - it's sometimes hard to tell.

There are also specific terms for Appaloosa horses.

Leopard - spots evenly over the body.

A black leopard Noriker mare with her spotted blanket foal. Source: 4028mdk09 via Wikimedia Commons

Snowflake - a reversed leopard, with the base color dark and the spots white. Extremely rare - I wish I could provide a picture but I can't find any that are legal for use.

Blanket - a white blanket over the horse's back.

This Appaloosa has a small blanket. Source: Brittany Hogan via Wikimedia Commons.

Spotted blanket - the horse has a blanket, then has spots in it.

This is a classic foundation Appaloosa with a very typical spotted blanket. Image source: RL65 via Wikimedia Commons.

Fewspot - the horse is almost white with a few spots in it. (This usually comes with two copies of the gene that causes Appaloosa spotting).

Snowcap - a wider blanket, also associated with two copies of the gene.

The mare shown above combines fewspot and snowcap.

Finally, some horses have birdcatcher spots, which shouldn't be confused with appaloosa spots. They are white spots that appear with age and become larger over time. Note that this terminology only dates to the nineteenth century, after a horse called Birdcatcher.

This horse has particularly large birdcatcher spots - they're generally smaller. Image source: Kersti Nebelsiek via Wikimedia Commons.

(All unlabeled images taken by me).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What Are Different Horse Colors Called?

Horse people have different official terms for colors, although we may be less specific when dealing with laymen. To make things even more confusing, these terms vary through the English speaking world. There may be more than one name for the same color or the same word might mean multiple colors...or different colors depending on where you are.

Confused yet? Here's a quick glossary to help you use the right words.

Bay - a brown or reddish brown horse with black points. In horses, the points are the mane, the tail, the legs below the main joints and the tips of the ears.

A bay horse of unknown breeding

Chestnut - a red, orange, or deep yellow color. In the U.S. west this is called sorrel, and you will sometimes see chestnut/sorrel.

A medium chestnut Quarter Horse.

Mealy chestnut - a chestnut horse with lighter color around the muzzle and flanks. Confusingly, in parts of the midwest, people use chestnut for a regular chestnut and sorrel for a mealy.

Flaxen chestnut - a chestnut horse with a silver, blonde, or white mane and tail. Draft horse breeders call these horses blond chestnut or just blond. To add to the confusion, I have also heard some people use sorrel for this coloring and reserve chestnut for a horse without a lighter mane and tail.

This Icelandic mare is both mealy and flaxen, to save space. She is also a lighter and brighter shade than the Quarter Horse above.

Liver chestnut - a very dark chestnut horse. Some liver chestnuts are brown and a color not dissimilar to that of chocolate labradors is fairly common. Rarely, a liver chestnut can look completely black and I've also seen a spectacular color with a black body and flame-colored mane and tail, presumably caused by the flaxen gene.

This Tori stallion is a pretty moderate liver chestnut - I've seen darker. Image source: Rozpravka via Wikimedia Commons.

Black - just as it says, but black horses often have red through their manes and across their backs, especially in summer. This is sometimes called "summer black" or "fading black" - and is caused by the same mechanism that gives some people pretty highlights in summer.

Note the reddening in this Icelandic mare's mane, indicating that she is probably a "fading" black.

Jet black or blue black - a true black horse that does not fade in summer. Very rare.

See how much darker this grade gelding is than the mare above.

Brown - generally used for either a very faded black or a very dark bay. True brown horses with no color variation across the points are extremely rare.

Seal bay or seal brown - a brown with lighter color around the muzzle and flanks. Caused by the same gene that gives mealy chestnuts.

This hunter shows the effect of the mealy gene on his nose. The greying also visible on his face is a sign of age - old horses get a bit grizzled around the face.

Grey - a horse that turns white with age. Grey horses are born whatever color they would have been without the grey gene and slowly fade to white. Usually they start to turn grey at puberty, but I've seen foals white at birth and once knew a horse that greyed so slowly he died of old age before reaching white.

This Icelandic mare has turned almost completely white.

Dappled Grey - a grey horse that has rings of darker hair on its coat.

Quarter Horse showing extensive dappling.

Fleabitten Grey - a grey horse that has flecks or specks of darker hair on its coat.

This Asil mare shows heavy fleabitten. Note that she shades to red whilst the dappled horse above appears more black. Image source: Alexander Kastler via Wikimedia Commons.

Interestingly, dappled grey horses are more likely to have a base of black or bay, whilst fleabittens seem more likely to have a base of chestnut.

White - white horses do exist, contrary to legend, but are very rare - the white gene does not always turn the horse completely white. Total albinism is unknown in horses and presumably lethal.

A rare dominant white. Source: Haase B, Brooks SA, Schlumbaum A, Azor PJ, Bailey E, et al. (2007) Allelic heterogeneity at the equine KIT locus in dominant white (W) horses. PLoS Genet 3(11): e195. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.0030195

Palomino - a yellow or gold horse with a white mane and tail. Highly valued in the western show community.

Image source: Kiss Girl via Wikimedia Commons.

Buckskin - a yellow or gold horse with black points. Also highly valued in the western community.

The dappled patterning on this New Forest pony is fairly common with buckskins. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Cremello - a pale cream horse with light skin and blue eyes.

Perlino - a pale cream horse with light skin and blue eyes, differs from cremello in having slightly darker points.

This is either a cremello or a perlino - it's hard to tell which. The shine to the coat is a characteristic of this horse's breed - Akhal-Teke. Image source: Лена via Wikimedia Commons.

Dun - a light brown horse with black points. Dun horses are distinguished from buckskins by also having a very defined black stripe down their spine and many also have black stripes on their lower legs. (In England, however, all light brown, yellow, or gold horses with dark points are called dun, regardless of the presence or absence of a dorsal stripe).

This shot shows the dorsal stripe on a dun horse. Horses of other colors may have fading or indistinct stripes, but this is definitely a dun. Image source: Arsdelicata via Wikimedia Commons.

Dunskin - a yellow or gold horse with brown points and a brown dorsal stripe - these horses have both the gene that causes dun and the gene that causes buckskin.

Norwegian Fjords are classically dunskin. Note the two-toned mane, which is caused by the dorsal stripe being narrower than the base of the mane - called "frosting" in buckskin and dun horses. The leg stripes are not much darker than the surrounding hair.

Red dun - a red horse with a dark red dorsal stripe and stripes on the legs.

A red dun Icelandic, with the dorsal stripe clearly visible. This horse also has mane frosting, but it's not quite as spectacular as on the dunskin above. Source: Hansueli Krapf via Wikimedia Commons.

Dunalino - a light yellow horse with a dark yellow dorsal stripe and stripes on the legs. Called palomino duns in England.

Grulla/grullo - a dark grey horse with black points, dorsal stripe, and leg stripes. Called mouse dun or grey dun in England, and also occasionally blue dun. Traditionally gender-differentiated in the US (a grulla mare and a grullo stallion).

Image source: tiboudne62 via Wikimedia Commons.

Roan - a horse with dark and white hairs evenly mixed through its coat. In England, also used for a horse with roaning on the lower part of its body.

Red roan - red-brown body with white hairs mixed through the coat, black points.

Some roans have unevenness in the hair color, as shown by this red roan Quarter Horse. The dark spots on his hindquarters are called corning.

Strawberry roan - light red body with white hairs mixed through the coat, red or flaxen points. Sometimes called chestnut roan in the US.

A strawberry roan Belgian. Don't mind me, I'm only half dressed...

Blue roan - black body with white hairs mixed through the coat, black points.

A team of Dutch Drafts. Note that the one on the left has a frosted mane and thus may be dun as well as roan. Image source: Amanda Slater via Wikimedia Commons.

All roan horses have dark points.

Rabicano - white hairs across the flank and rump of the horse and in the base of the tail. Called "skunk tail" in England. Common in Thoroughbreds.

This is really extreme rabicano to show the effect. It's generally much more subtle - this is a purebred Arabian. Image source: Coreada via Wikimedia Commons.

I'll talk about terms for multi-colored horses tomorrow, because this has gotten long!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How Bad Is It If A Horse Bites You?

Another popular question at the barn - how bad are horse bites? Do people put down horses that bite people?

Horses are more inclined to bite than dogs, but horse bites are generally less serious. Only about half of horses have canines and when they do, they're vestigial. If a horse nails you, it's with grass cutting incisors. They seldom break the skin. Serious bites generally involve children who may have limbs small enough to fit entirely inside a horse's mouth, and horses have been known to sever fingers. For the most part, though, if a horse bites you it leaves a nasty bruise - sometimes a very nasty one. I once had a bruise from a horse take nine months to fade.

Pretty much everyone who rides and works with horses will get bitten. You learn to predict when a horse is going to nip at you and to dodge, but they can still get you. It's considered a normal hazard of dealing with the animals.

In some cases, modern liability laws may cause problems. If the public can get near your horses it's best to put up signs warning that horses can bite if fed or petted, sometimes by accident.

But overall, being bitten by a horse is painful and unpleasant, but not serious. However, anyone who rides should keep their tetanus vaccinations up to date - the bacteria tends to hang around stables. (If writing stories in the past bear in mind that lockjaw is a hazard for riders and horses and hard to treat without modern antibiotics.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

How Old Does A Horse Need To Be Before Being Ridden?

There's actually some argument about this. Depending on who you ask, you'll get answers varying from 18 months to 6 years old - and you'll hear good arguments on either side.

I grew up with an answer of "Three and a half - with full work not starting until 4." Most racehorses, however, are broken to ride at about 18 months - long before they stop growing. And in the United States, riding horses are usually broken somewhere between 18 months and 2 so they can be shown in under saddle futurities.

It's easier to train a younger horse, but training them too young can cause joint and back damage. Breaking horses in younger than three is a relatively recent thing that came out of the popularity of 2 year old races (the Kentucky Derby used to be considered a "futurity" for young prospects, not the peak of a horse's career). So, for wordbuilding purposes, it's probably best to assume that most people are breaking horses at 3-4. In modern horse training circles we talk about whether the joints have "closed" and many feel it is cruel to ride a horse before certain joints have closed, that is, stopped growing and developing. I still hold to the "four years for full work" rule.

Harness horses can be trained a little younger as pulling is easier on their bones and muscles than carrying. Leaving it much past 5 means your horse starts to mature a little too much mentally and then they take, like older people, longer to learn everything.

Mules and donkeys/burros take longer to mature, and the muleskinners I've talked to recommend 5 for breaking and 6 for full work.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Is It True Horses Can't Throw Up?

This one always gets askance looks. "Well, see, horses can't vomit."

Horses have no gag reflex and a much stronger "valve" in the esophagus to keep food in the stomach. The angle of the connection between the esophagus and stomach also makes it much harder for food to come back up. A horse's digestive system is strictly a one way street - they don't burp the way we do, either.

If food is coming back through the horse's mouth or nostrils, then it usually means the horse has something stuck in its throat...or neurological damage. Both are very serious, so if a horse throws up, it means something is badly wrong with it. Stomach contents may also leak through the mouth or nose of a dead horse. In fact, the last time I saw a horse with food in its nostrils it was dead within a week.

Omnivores and carnivores vomit to get rid of poisons. Horses can't do that - but are much less prone to bacterial infection, as they don't eat meat.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Will A Horse Simply Stay Still If Unattended?

So, you've all seen those scenes where the hero gets off to check tracks, or whatever, and leaves his horse just standing there.

The question I got was "will a horse actually do that?"

The answer is: Yes, if trained to do it. Modern riders call it "ground tying" - training a horse to stay where it is put without any physical restraint.

A horse that has been properly trained to ground tie will wait calmly while its rider or driver (this training is particularly important for harness horses, who need to stand while the wagon is loaded and unloaded, etc) does whatever they have to do and not move until given permission to do so. It is taught, simply, by putting the horse in a location and moving them back there if they shift position, gradually increasing the length of time and how far the handler moves away. This is such easy training I did it when I was 14.

So, the answer is, a well trained horse will wait for his rider to pick up whatever he dropped, open and close a gate, set up equipment in an arena or even eat lunch. A well trained horse will also stop and stand if his rider is unseated, unless given some reason not to.

What if the horse isn't well trained? Most likely the horse will move off a short distance and start grazing. An unattended horse will generally not run unless spooked or chased. They'll head for the nearest bit of grass and chow down.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How Much Do Horses Feel The Cold?

A very popular question at the barn over this harsh winter - aren't they cold? In fact, clueless animal rights activists often campaign for horses to be kept in heated barns. The general public is often mystified that barn windows are open in the middle of the winter.

So, just how much do horses feel the cold? The answer is - less than we do, and not just because they have fur coats on.

Horses are cold climate animals. To a human, ideal room temperature is about 70F. To a horse, ideal room temperature would be about 50F. (That might be an interesting trait to give your aliens).

In most climates, thus, horses can manage in unheated barns, although we often put coats on them if it's very cold. Heating the barn, on the other hand, would be prohibitively expensive and closing the windows can cause respiratory complaints.

So, the simple answer is: Yes, horses feel the cold. No, they don't feel it as much as us hairless tropical apes.

(And these guys feel it even less - horses are the only livestock Icelandic farmers can leave on pasture all winter, as long as they get enough hay!)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Are Girl And Boy Horses Called?

Going to the very basics now. What do we call male and female horses? How about donkeys?

A fully grown, adult female horse is a "mare." A young female horse is a "filly" - from the French "fille" for "little girl."

An entire, adult male horse is a "stallion." You may also hear him called a "stud" in some regions, but in other regions that term is considered entirely incorrect, so stallion is safer. A young male horse is a "colt."

One point of confusion is that in the west all young horses are "colts" with males being called "horse colts" or "stud colts" and females being called "filly colts" or just "fillies." In any case, a field full of young horses is a field full of "colts" (or "youngstock").

A male donkey is a "jack". A female donkey is a "jenny". Donkeys as a group, though, are sometimes called "jacks" or "jackasses" and some donkey breeds contain the word "jack."

A castrated male horse or donkey is a "gelding" regardless of age.

A male mule is a "john" and a female is a "molly."

Confused yet? A lot of horse terminology carries a weight of tradition with it - and there are some regional variations that even those experienced with it can find a little strange.

An Appaloosa mare.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Do Horses Say With Their Ears?

Question from +Nobilis Reed. Thank you, Nobilis.

He pointed out that the caption from yesterday's photo might not make sense without some explanation.

Horses have fairly small, pricked ears. Donkeys and mules have rather longer ears. A horse's ears aren't just for hearing the carrot bag rustle - they're an important part of how equines communicate.

First of all, the direction a horse's ears point in indicates their primary attention.

Both of this horse's ears are pointed right at the camera. His head is also turned that way, meaning his attention is entirely on the camera and the person holding it. Pricked ears show alertness and usually happiness - a horse with both ears pricked is "smiling."

This pinto, on the other hand, is more interested in the hay he's eating. He has not turned his head, but has the ear on that side cocked towards the cameraperson. His attention is split between them and his lunch.

This picture shows divided attention even more clearly. One of the mare's ears is pointed at the camera. The other is pointed at her rider - listening for the next cue.

What you'll often hear is that ears back means a horse is unhappy - in this case, the back-turned ear is still "pricked" or "upright" and shows that she's paying attention to the person on her back.

This horse is slightly annoyed - instead of being pricked but turned back, her ears are slightly flattened and the rest of her expression is grumpy. She's been tied up longer than she likes and isn't entirely happy about it.

Be careful about approaching a horse that looks like this. They may decide to make you a target of their irritation. These Przevalski's horses are having a hierarchy dispute. Note the completely flat ears on the middle horse. We call this "pinned" ears.

(Image courtesy of Ancalagon via Wikimedia Commons).

If a horse puts its ears flat back like that - back off! That's a horse that is either scared or aggressive - and in either case quite likely to bite you. An expert who knows how to handle a horse in a bad mood can do it. A novice should not. As a note, a horse pins its ears to protect them from damage in a fight - so war horses in battle will also pin their ears. Don't pet a horse that has its ears pinned. It's probably trying to say "Don't pet me."

Mules and donkeys use the same "ear-lage" to communicate, with one slight exception.

If my horse had its ears flat out to the side like that - then I would be worried. Horses only flatten their ears sideways if sick, exhausted, or depressed (Yes, horses can get depressed. I've seen it). Mules, however, tend to just let their much larger ears flop casually - it just means relaxation. In this case, this mule was just too lazy to be bothered to prick them.

(All pictures taken by me unless specified otherwise).