A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part II

The first installment talked a little about basic terminology that you, the writer, might use to describe a horse. This time around, let’s chat about some more specific means of identifying them. You may find a search engine helpful, because I’ll try to describe the parameters of colors, markings, and breeds, but you’ll find it easier to look at more pictures than I have space for in the post.

All images are from Wikipedia. The horse in the featured image is brindle with a dark bay base coat. I have no idea what breed he is, probably some kind of Thoroughbred cross (he’s a little larger and heavier boned than a registered Thoroughbred).

Horses come in many different colors, including white. There was a bit of cultural ‘knowledge’ going around at one point, that said there was no such thing as a white horse. Baloney. White horses are rare, because they’re subject to a recessive genetic condition called Lethal White Syndrome, but they do exist. They’re almost always born white, whereas gray horses are born a solid color and turn gray gradually over a few years. Most of them have pink skin; grays- and most other colors- have black skin.

The most common color for a horse is chestnut. These horses vary in color from very light to red to very brown. They can have flaxen (blond) manes and tails, and one of my childhood horses was chestnut with a flaxen mane and a gray/black/chocolate brown tail. Yes, really; she was gorgeous- probably a mix of Arabian, Morgan, and/or Quarter Horse. The second-most common color is bay (almost any shade of red or brown for the body combined with a black mane and tail). Some bays have black lower legs or the tips of their ears can be black. True black horses are rare, and can be hard to identify because many fade to chocolate brown in the sun. Brown horses are a separate color but can be hard to differentiate from liver chestnuts and dark bays.

‘Primitive’ and less common horse colors include dun (reddish or golden body, red or black mane, zebra stripes on the legs, and a dorsal stripe), buckskin (looks like a golden bodied bay, but is actually genetic dilution of bay), palomino (golden body with a white or pale mane and tail; it’s a dilution of chestnut), grulla (mouse-colored), roan (the horse equivalent of a gentleman’s salt-and-pepper hair), pinto (irregular spots of color on a white background), or appaloosa (the horse version of a Dalmatian; also, a specific breed). Brindle horses also exist, but they’re usually chimeras and so, very rare. These colors are most commonly found among stock horse breeds that originated in the Americas.

Colors go in and out of fashion. For a long time, any type of non-solid color- so, pintos and appaloosas- were very unfashionable. If you’re writing in the colonial or regency era, give your hero a solid colored horse- chestnut, bay, brown, black, or gray, in that order of popularity. It probably also has a docked tail if the story is set in England, but the tails of American and French horses were usually left long. Chestnuts are thought to be more high-strung than other horses, but it’s hard to say if that’s a holdover from humans thinking that redheads are hot-tempered, and making a self-fulfilling prophecy out the matter. Arabian horses always have black skin; it was bred into them hundreds of years ago because of the risk of sunburn in the Middle East. Yes, horses can get sunburned, poor things, so if your desert-roaming hero has a white-faced horse with a pink muzzle, you might mention the possibility.

Don’t get too clever if you’re describing the colors of related horses. Just like in humans, some hair colors are recessive, and pop up at odd times. Play it safe, and say that the foal is the same color as one of its parents. Two chestnuts will always produce a chestnut foal. But a different cross, say, between a chestnut and a buckskin, can produce a foal that is bay, chestnut, palomino, or buckskin, depending on the buckskin parent’s ancestry.

There are a couple of exceptions. You may never need these in your writing, but I find them interesting, and I get kicked out of the Horse Person Club if I don’t go on tangents like these. So, a chestnut crossed with a cremello (double dilution of chestnut) will always produce a palomino (single dilution of chestnut. Similarly, a bay crossed with a perlino (double dilution of bay) will always produce a buckskin (single dilution of bay).

You probably won’t need to describe pinto and appaloosa coat patterns in your writing. For your edification, here are some basics: Pintos can be piebald (black and white) or skewbald (white and any other color). Bay or buckskin pintos are often called tri-color. Pintos can also be classified as overo or tobiano- both terms are pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable. Very basically, an overo looks like a solid colored horse with white patches and a tobiano looks like a white horse with darker colored patches. The solid color usually covers an overo horse’s back. A tobiano’s back is usually but not always white, and they tend to be heavier boned than an overo horse of the same type.

A bay tobiano:

A bay tobiano

A dark bay or brown overo:

An frame overo pattern

Appaloosas have their own unique patterns. The most common are blanket (most of the horse’s body is a solid color except for the hip and rump, which are white with spots of the same solid color as the rest of the horse) and leopard (dark spots all over the otherwise white horse).

A blanket appaloosa:


A leopard appaloosa:

Appaloosa stallion.JPG

Moving on to markings, many otherwise solid colored horses have patches of white on their faces and legs. Facial markings include a star (on the forehead), stripe (a thin line down the face), snip (between the nostrils), any combination of the above, a blaze (a wider stripe), or bald face (varies, but usually the entire face is white when viewed from the front).

HorseCraz – All about the horses!

Horses usually have brown eyes, but when the hair around the eyes is white, and the skin is pink, their eyes appear light blue. A horse can have one or two blue eyes, and in rare cases, the eye can appear partially blue and partially brown. Blue eyes are also known as watch eyes. Some horses have a visible sclera (the white of their eye). The sclera becomes visible when a horse is frightened, because it opens its eyes wide, but Appaloosa horses often have visible sclera even when at rest, giving them a perpetually worried look.

Leg markings can also be used to identify a horse. It’s rare for a horse to have a random patch of white on a lower leg; most leg markings start from the hoof and go up the leg, like the horse has stepped in puddles of white paint of varying depth. Starting from the bottom, a horse can have a coronet (thin band just above its hoof), pastern (up to the bottom of the ankle joint), sock (to the top of the ankle joint), half-stocking (up to the half way point of the cannon bone, which is the long bone of the lower leg), or stocking (up to the knee or hock). White markings above that point and not on the face are commonly called high-white. Many breed registries have strict rules about the amount of high-white a horse can have. For example, Quarter Horses with too much white have to be registered with the American Paint Horse Association or the various pinto registries, even if the horse’s parents were both registered with the American Quarter Horse Association. Horses can also have distal spots, which are black spots on a white sock or stocking. They’re most commonly found in bay horses.

Top row L to R: stocking, half-stocking, sock

Bottom row L to R:  pastern, coronet, partial pastern

Horses also have unique hair whorls on their foreheads, which can be used for identification. A bit of folk wisdom says that the more whorls a horse has, the more temperamental he can be. They can also have narrow vertical stripes on their hooves. This is most common in Appaloosas (the breed or the color) but is occasionally found in other horses. Wider vertical stripes are found in horses of all breeds that have white leg markings.

A word on horse breeds: Most horse breeds developed at least partially by accident. A particular stallion (or small group of them) becomes popular, and people realize that he stamps his offspring with some of his better qualities, then owners of the offspring slowly get together and develop a breed standard and registry, cataloguing horses that can be verifiably traced back to that particular stallion, who becomes known as the foundation sire of the breed.

Occasionally, someone sets out to create a new breed, but historically speaking, horse breeders are simply looking to improve the quality of their stock, not to upend an existing breed.

Quarter Horses are the most common breed of horse in the world, known for their sprinting ability and cattle-herding talent, but they didn’t become an official breed until about 1940. If you’re writing a western, your hero is probably riding a Quarter Horse, even if it’s not called that. Mustangs, which are feral, also make good horses for this type of book, with the added benefit that your hero can say he captured and tamed the horse himself. Less common but still present in westerns are Paints, Appaloosas, Arabians, and Morgans. Be careful when looking up photos; many breeds- Quarter Horses in particular- have drifted from the original standard, and look quite different from their historical counterparts.

There are mentions of specific horse breeds in China in the early A.D.s, but most people before about 1900 referred to horses by their job or type- draft, saddle horse, carriage horse, cart horse, plow horse, pony, pacer, etc. One caveat- the English were very fond of their Thoroughbreds, and founded a registry called The Jockey Club in 1750 to document their horses’ parentage. So your fashionable Regency character will ride a Thoroughbred. He may also drive a pair, hitched to a curricle, or use a sturdier carriage horse like a Welsh cob, Hackney, or Cleveland Bay if he wants something with more action (high-stepping) but not as fast. Again, he probably wouldn’t identify those horses by breed, but by their job.

The American colonies also had a few specific breeds. Narragansett Pacers were favored by wealthy landowners, because they’re smooth-gaited, and the Morgan was developed in Vermont around the time of the Revolution, then went on to become an all-purpose horse favored by the US Army’s cavalry divisions. The wealthy gentleman in your novel set in the antebellum South will ride a smooth gaited and high stepping horse like a Tennessee Walking Horse, Racking Horse, or Saddlebred. Conquistadors probably rode Spanish jennets (distinct from the modern breed), Arabians, Barbs, or Andalusians. Or some combination thereof; horses that escaped from the conquistadors became the ancestors of mustangs and Quarter Horses, and probably looked like that. For a visual example, look up Azteca horses; they’re typically a cross between a Quarter Horse and an Andalusian. The South American colonies also developed their own smooth-gaited horses for the use of wealthy gentlemen- the Peruvian Paso and Paso Fino are most common in former Spanish colonies; the Mangalarga Marchador is from Brazil, and fairly rare. Don’t have your character ride one unless he or she is an extremely wealthy plantation owner.

Sometimes horses are smooth- or rough-gaited on an individual basis. Usually, a breed is one or the other, because gait patterns are heritable, but individual Saddlebreds can be taught to slow-gait and rack. Standardbreds can be taught to pace, and there are some naturally smooth-gaited Morgans. Almost all Icelandic horses can tolt, and some learn to pace.

Medieval cavalry horses vary. Your knight in shining armor will travel aboard a palfrey, a smaller, possibly smooth-gaited horse about 14-15 hands high and 800-1000 lbs. But palfreys aren’t large enough to carry an armored knight into the joust, so he’ll switch to a destrier, 16 or more hands high and around 1500 lbs. Percheron horses were bred for jousting, and Fresians are another good example, though slightly smaller.

Most war horses were somewhere between palfreys and destriers in size. A knight or calvaryman had to be able to mount from the ground, and though he’d want to be raised above the infantry’s heads, he wouldn’t want to be too far above the ground and have to lean precariously out of the saddle to chop off an attacker’s head. So war horses- if they were bred specifically for war, and not commandeered out of a farmer’s field- were about 15 hands high and 1200 lbs. Andalusians (from Spain) and Lusitanos (from Portugal) were common among aristocratic men who led armies at the time firearms were becoming more common- the 1500s and 1600s.

Remember to do your research if you want to portray a specific breed; I don’t have the space to describe each one in detail. If you type any of these breed names into Bing or Duckduckgo, you’ll be inundated with websites and photos to help you imagine the horse you’re looking for.

Modern horses are much larger, in both size and stature, than historical breeds. Also remember that a character usually won’t describe his horse by breed, unless he’s a massive snob; he’ll describe it by name, sex, color, markings, or distinctive behavior.
And that’s the next installment: horse behavior, and why they act so inexplicably at times.


  1. I can, have, and do ride, though cannot be honestly called a horse expert. These posts are splendid. Ever thought of writing a “Horses for Dummies,” style book? I dunno how much you had to research these posts, but your knowledge is encyclopedic. Thank you.

    1. Heh. Thanks. My degree is in Ag and Natural Resources, and most of my classes were horse-related, so I sort of know what I’m talking about. I do some research, because I don’t want to get caught shooting off my mouth.

      As for the “Horses for Dummies’ book, Sarah is trying to convince me to compile these posts into something of that nature. And there is a book by that title; it has decent basic info.

      1. Hence my referring to the book as a “HfD” STYLE book. Maybe “Everything You’d Like To Know About Horses, But Were Afraid To Ask?”

  2. Very, very well done. I would add only one small detail: many medieval warhorses were crosses between riding breeds and light draft breeds, which typically produced a large and muscular horse with good riding gaits. This made it both capable of carrying an armored knight, and slender and smooth-moving enough to ride. (Your average draft horse is HUGE across the back; I’d not want to ride something that wide-bodied if I could help it. Very uncomfortable.) As I understand it, if you want a good idea of what a warhorse looked like, you should look at what’s known today as a “heavy hunter.”

    OK, two small details: the name “Quarter Horse” derives from the belief that the breed was big on speed but short on endurance, and could race no more than a quarter mile before running out of energy.

    1. I’ll second that emotion. I once rode an extremely broad-backed horse. I am a slightly above average sized man, and it was still not a pleasant experience. I think I might have not noticed it much, if I were on it only during battle. It certainly makes the notion of palfreys for everyday riding much more logical. I had always thought that it was to preserve the condition of your warhorse, but it may have been equally as much for the comfort of the knight.

      1. Draft-type horses also have a very jarring gait; even light drafts can be uncomfortable to ride, no matter how wide or narrow they are.

        Historical horses were much narrower than modern breeds. Sidesaddle riders often try to fit an antique saddle to their horse, only to discover that it’s made for a horse about half the width of theirs.

      2. I started riding Paso Finos, and loved them (although they do tend to be, ah, determined is a nice way to put it). Then I moved to a Quarter Horse. Dang, he was wide! And a long way down to the ground. Which did not get any softer.

  3. So, if we are doing a planet colonized from Earth, and then reverted to a lower tech level, we might have some grounds for new or different breeds?

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