A Writer’s Guide to Horses Part III


In which I explain the basics of equine behavior.

Horses are herd animals, and prey animals. This explains most of their behavior. But that’s kind of a short blog post, so allow me to elaborate.

Also, I forgot to give you a primer on equine anatomy, so here you go: parts of the horse

Most parts of the horse are fairly recognizable- neck, back, nostrils, etc. You, a writer, aren’t likely to use the more technical terms, because your readers will start giving you funny looks if you start going on about stifles, cannons, and pasterns. For your own edification, know that when a person refers to the points of a horse, they can mean parts of the horse in general, or more specifically, the mane, tail, lower legs, and tips of the ears. This is most commonly heard when talking of bay horses, which can have a red or brown body and black points.

Everyone knows what a horse’s tail is, but the mane is a little more obscure if you’re trying to learn from pictures. It’s the longer, rougher hair on the crest of the horse’s neck, and is occasionally but not always a different color from the body. Dun horses often have striped manes, where the color runs in a long stripe from between the ears to the withers. Horses’ manes grow to all different lengths, depending on the breed and the individual’s health. Some horses grow hardly any mane, others grow a mane down past their shoulders. Usually, the hair stops growing at about eight to twelve inches long. A horse’s tail can be hock-length or shorter, or it can drag on the ground. Most horse’s tails fall somewhere between their hock and pastern.

A horse’s withers are the highest point of the shoulder. It’s actually the spinal processes of a couple of the thoracic vertebrae, and can vary in prominence. Thoroughbreds tend to have high withers, which can make it difficult to find a properly fitting saddle (if the saddle rubs on the withers, it’s very uncomfortable for the horse) and makes them very uncomfortable to ride without a saddle, especially for riders of the male persuasion. Ponies, Quarter Horses, and Morgans tend to have more rounded withers, which makes them more comfortable to ride bareback but can allow the saddle to slip if it’s not tightened properly.

The poll is the point between the horse’s ears. When a horse breaks at the poll- a phrase used by trainers but not usually by the average rider- the horse is flexing its neck so its face appears vertical when viewed from the side. Most horses find it comfortable to carry their head about fifteen degrees in front of vertical (often called ‘on the bit’), so their nose points slightly ahead of them. If a horse holds its nose in the air (above the bit) it may be tired, out of shape, or resisting the pressure of the bridle. If a horse holds its nose tucked into its chest (behind the bit) it is resisting the bridle and may need a different bit or for the rider to loosen the reins.

A horse’s muzzle is area surrounding the mouth and nostrils. It can be velvety soft or covered in slightly rougher hair. Some horses have mustaches, no matter their sex.

Horses shed their coats twice a year, though the autumn shedding is less noticeable because the hairs are short. This has nothing to do with air temperature; the pineal gland in the horse’s brain senses the shortening of daylight, and signals to the hair follicles that it’s time to start shedding one coat and growing another. Some horses, like mustangs and most pony breeds, get very fuzzy; others, like Arabians and Thoroughbreds, only grow a mild winter coat. Most horses shed from front to back, generally speaking, and some shed more evenly than others. Often, the horse will have its short summer coat mixed for a few weeks with very long ‘guard hairs’, which act like a fringe to help shed water. The guard hairs eventually fall out, and the horse is left sleek and shiny. Until it rolls in the mud, of course.

Now that you have a reference for some of the basic parts of the horse, let’s talk about behavior. A horse’s instinct, whenever confronted with anything remotely threatening or just plain unfamiliar, is to run away from it. Once it no longer feels threatened, it will stop and look at the object. A horse doesn’t run forever; that’s not an efficient behavior. Even a terrified horse that bolts will usually stop within a few hundred yards, unless it still feels unsafe or the rest of the horses around it are still running. Some horses will spook or shy at an object, but as soon as the rider falls off, they will stop because they’re not sure what to do now that their leader isn’t nearby (My most memorable experience with this happened when a horse bucked a full circuit around the arena, ignoring all of my hints that she should knock it off, damn it. When I finally fell off, she went about three more strides, stopped and turned around to stare at me, head down, acting like a scolded child. It’s hilarious now, years later, but not so much at the time).

Most domesticated horses are trained to turn the flight response into a whole-body flinch. The horse is said to spook or shy when it flinches, and this can be accompanied by a rapid turn (spin, duck, whirl) away from the scary object. Some horses feel like they’re levitating, others sink lower to the ground and scramble. All can unseat an unprepared rider.

Many horses will be less spooky if they have a friend nearby. Horses are generally gregarious, though there are some individuals who prefer to be alone. If one horse in a group shies at an object, the rest of the herd is likely to follow suit, even if none of them have seen the object in question.

A herd of horses has a linear hierarchy- there are no equals. First in line is the lead mare. Not the stallion. The lead mare is the smartest and most aggressive mare. She remembers where the food, water, and safe places are, and brings the herd to them as needed. The rest of the herd falls in line behind her, in order of aggressiveness. Usually, once a horse’s rank is established in the herd, it stays there, unless horses are added to or subtracted from the herd. A foal usually takes its rank from its mother. Sometimes injury or displacement of the herd can cause shifts in the hierarchy.

The stallion is usually considered second in rank, but he’s sort of outside the hierarchy. He stands guard, and is the last to flee danger, bringing up the rear to make sure no one gets left behind. Some historical cultures made use of this behavior, and trained stallions for war; they’re more aggressive and will occasionally fight to defend a rider that they consider part of the herd. A herd of wild horses usually contains one stallion, one to a dozen mares, and their foals under two or three years old (the age of sexual maturity for most horse breeds).

In the wild, stallions will form bachelor herds for protection. They play-fight, and hang out together, like a group of human males chilling out. Domestic geldings will do the same, usually with less fighting. A good-tempered gelding is a godsend to any domestic herd; he’s not pushy like a lead mare, but quietly keeps the rest of the horses in line.

When handling horses, you don’t want to take on the role of the stallion. You want to be the lead mare. You are the source of food, water, safety, and direction, because if you’re not, the horse will assume that the herd has no leader, and will take on that role. This can be dangerous.

Horses communicate in a few different ways, some more violent than others. If you, the handler, allow a horse to assume a higher rank than you, you’re likely to get kicked or bitten if the horse takes exception to you. But most equine communication is less violent.

A horse’s ears are the most visible means of communication; they move independently and tend to point in whatever direction the horse is looking. If both ears are pointed forward, the horse is alert and listening to something in front of it, particularly if it is also standing squarely on all four feet with its head raised above its back. If the horse is interested in something near its feet, its ears will be pointed forward/up and it will lower its head. Some horses will allow their ears to splay outward when resting. If they’re pointed slightly back, the horse may be listening, or suspicious of something happening behind it. One ear pointed back and one forward usually means the horse is paying attention to its rider. But if both ears are pinned flat against its neck, watch out. That horse is seriously annoyed. This position is usually accompanied by bared teeth and crinkled nostrils, and anyone within reach is likely to get bitten.

An alert, content horse:

alert horse

An angry horse:

angry horse

Horses also communicate by throwing their weight around. Horses will nudge each other, particularly mares with their foals, and will occasionally bump each other with a hip or shoulder to assert dominance. You, the handler, need to keep a circle of personal space around you, about one foot away from your body, and if the horse steps into that space, push him out of it. You don’t want a horse to get in the habit of standing in your space without permission. It’s okay to hug, pat, cuddle, or scritch a horse, but you, as the lead mare, must be the one to initiate contact. It’s a sign of benevolent dominance, which is ideal when working with horses. You don’t need to be cruel or violent, but you need to be in charge, because you’re so much smaller and more physically fragile, and can get hurt if the horse asserts dominance over you. Remember, there are no equal ranks in a horse’s mind.

A horse will occasionally curl its upper lip, like it’s smiling. This is called the flehmen response, and is a way of smelling the air. The horse isn’t actually happy, it’s just trying to get a better picture of the world around it.

Horses are quieter than most people think. They sneeze and cough, but they’re otherwise mostly silent. Sometimes they’ll snort when confronted with an unfamiliar object, and will blow out their breath when meeting a new horse or encountering a new smell (horses breathe only through their nostrils not their mouths). They whinny or neigh sometimes when separated from their herd; they’re saying, “I’m here; where are you?” and will give a softer whinny when they see a familiar person, or when they expect to be fed. But they don’t make nearly as much noise in real life as they do in movies. Even an injured horse doesn’t make much noise; they’re a prey animal and the last thing they want at that moment is for a mountain lion to hear them screaming.

A horse will not usually run into a solid wall, but there are caveats. Panicking horses have been known to do all kinds of weird things, and some of them are just plain stupid (like my horse, who once ran through a highly visible electric fence for no good reason). Also, horses see things differently than humans. As a prey animal, their eyes are on the side of their head, giving them a proportionately high degree on monocular vision. So they can see in every direction except directly behind them (always talk to or touch a horse when walking behind him, so he knows you’re there) and directly in front of their nose. This means that obstacles disappear from a horse’s line of sight at the exact moment he decides to jump over it, run into it, or stop. This also means they have so-so depth perception, which is why a horse will raise and lower his head if he’s looking at an unfamiliar object; he’s trying to get a couple different views of it. Cavalry horses will charge a mass of people because they can’t turn aside without running into the horses on their left and right, and because horses are herd animals, so they’re more likely to keep running if their buddies are doing the same.

A horse’s field of vision:

horse range of vision

You, the writer, will have a more believable cavalry charge if the horses are running at a small or scattered group of enemies. Because your readers have probably bought into another weird bit of cultural ‘knowledge’ that says a horse will NEVER run toward a solid wall. Usually true, but not always, in my experience.

More on equine vision. Horses don’t distinguish red from other colors, so a red apple looks gray to them. They have better night vision than humans, but their eyes take longer to adjust. Because their eyes are on the sides of their head, horses will remember an object if it’s presented from the same side, but won’t always recognize the object if it is suddenly presented from the other side. So, trainers are very careful to desensitize a horse to stimuli from both left and right, so the information sinks into both sides of the horse’s brain. It’s also important to teach a horse cues from both sides, like poking him in the side to make him move over, because horses don’t automatically translate a left-sided cue into a right-sided one, or vice versa.

A well-trained horse will tolerate being handled from both sides. However, a horse’s training begins from the left side- the horse’s left side. There’s historical precedent for this; because most people are right-handed, a cavalryman wears his sword belted to his left side, so he can draw it across his body with his right hand. Therefore, he’s obliged to mount his horse from the left, so he doesn’t sit on his sword; and to lead the horse from its left, so the sheathed sword doesn’t poke the horse.

Also, the reins are held in the left hand, since it’s the only free hand, and were the rider to mount from the right side, he’d be obliged to switch the reins from one hand to the other. This carries over into modern times, though a lot of Western riders have taken to holding the reins right-handed. They are obliged to switch hands when mounting, which isn’t particularly safe. English riders use both hands on the reins, and polo players only hold the reins left-handed; there’s a mallet in their right hand. In the past, left-handed polo players could hold the mallet in their left hand, but there were so many accidents and collisions that the USPA no longer allows it.

Anyway. Horses also vary in intelligence. Some of them unlatch gates; untie themselves; or find themselves a snack, like my mother’s mini horse, who managed to pull a packet of M&Ms out of her coat, tear off the paper end, and pour a handful of them onto the ground. He was munching unrepentantly when Mom discovered him.

But some horses are content to do their jobs and get fed at the end of the day, just like some people. Most geldings are like this- very chill and level-headed. Mares can be snotty if not well trained, and stallions can be standoffish.

The Scythians were the first to geld their horses, that we know of, and did it because geldings are more tractable than stallions. You may want your knight in shining armor to charge into battle atop a white stallion, but it may not be the most practical thing. George R.R. Martin got one thing right- stallions (particularly not-very-well-trained ones) can be distracted by a mare in heat, and can be hard to control. But stallions of all breeds are to be found in shows and competitions, so it really is a matter of properly training the horse from a young age.

I’ll go into more details about safe handling in the next installment, but it’s worth noting that horses are trained to move away from pressure. There are a couple of exceptions, namely draft and driving horses that are taught to lean into their collar or breastplate in order to pull a cart. But most well trained horses won’t lean on a person, and if you poke the horse in the shoulder or flank, it should move over.

Most bad behaviors in domestic horses are the result of poor training or boredom. Horses will bite/nip, kick out with their hind legs, paw the ground with their forelegs, strike out in front of their body with a foreleg, pace their stalls or paddocks, chew leather or wood, and rear up.

There are some other vices that require a little explanation, like cribbing, which is when the horse grabs hold of a solid surface with its upper incisors and leans back. This makes a grunting noise, and the resulting rush of air down the horse’s throat releases endorphins. It’s like horse crack, and is addicting and contagious. Weaving is another problem in domestic horses; the horse stands in a corner and rocks from side to side. It’s annoying, for one thing, and can actually cause lameness in severe cases. Horses will also buck or crow hop because of irritation or high spirits. The horse puts its head down and kicks its heels in the air, like a less intense version of a rodeo bronco. Bucking is most common at the canter, because of the similar rolling nature of the gait, but my brother’s horse has the rare talent of bucking from a standstill, with her head at a normal height. Very interesting to see and feel, and makes everyone glad she’s usually ridden western (the saddle pommel catches the rider, who is flung forward by the force of the buck). It’s very difficult for a horse to buck while trotting or moving uphill, which is partly why riders often make their horse trot for a time when beginning exercise.

Most equine vices can be cured by giving the horse more exercise and mental stimulation. If that fails, the owner should consult a vet- the horse may be in pain, and expressing it the only way it knows how.

You, a writer, will probably use only the most common vices if you want to show a recalcitrant horse. Bucking, rearing, biting, and kicking are good choices- your reader will usually understand what you’re talking of.

Now that I’ve scared everyone away from horses forever, stay tuned for the next installment: basic handling and safety.



  1. This was fascinating! I’ve been somewhat around horses off and on for large chunks of my life (we raised miniatures, for one, when I was a teen), but never was well into the riding or training side of things. And nowadays, sadly, I can’t get within ten feet of a horse without swelling up like a balloon, breaking out in hives, and dribbling from various facial orifices, sigh. Partly on account of I can’t be near a horse without wanting to greet it/scritch it/etc, but still.

  2. Another excellent installment. I ride, and consider myself past the “greenhorn” stage, and still find these posts informative, accessible, and entertaining to read.

    A related note: during my time in Colombia, I had the ??fortune?? to ride a well-trained Paso Fino. TL:DR – Colombian horses (at least that one) respond differently to commands, and rider input. I seemed to onlookers to be a complete novice, as the horse seemed confuzzled by my rider input. Only by remaining astride the horse after it galloped at and jumped a four foot hedge did the crowd believe that this Texas boy actually told the truth when he claimed he could ride.

    The gelding eventually after a time wore himself out, at which time I hastily dismounted, relieved myself to be in one piece. My Colombian friends attributed this to my creaky Spanish, and said the horse was ornery only due to his poor English, and that he has never had a gringo in his back before. The gelding was a perfectly trained gentleman with all riders before and after me, to include some small children and novice riders. (All Colombian.)

    So, can national/cultural differences make a difference in equine/rider training?

    1. Riding English vs. Western, or dressage vs. anything, can also be way different, as can riding in various European or non-European countries. So yup, serious differences.

      So yup, Paso Finos are trained to different “cues” than horses in the English-speaking world. Cues, leg positions, etc. can differ a lot. And yes, probably people from Colombia are used to seeing movies where people ride Colombian-style, or seeing people in their neighborhood do the same.

      So I found a webpage, which refused to go into much detail on cues because you need to learn them in person. Apparently the way to ride a Paso Fino is just to sit there in a balanced way, not really urging the guy in even the slightest way with the legs, and using extremely small hand movements as the “brakes.” So yeah, if you try to do anything at all from normal riding experience, stuff would go wrong pretty fast. Even dressage people need guidance, this webpage says.

      1. I’ve ridden American trained Paso Finos. You use very small hand movements, and softer leg cues. Except for that [censored] gelding who was left half trained and a full b-stard.

    2. I encountered one pony that learned it had two jobs and to distinguish by weight… which could complicate things if an adult wanted a simple ride. One job was kiddie rides.. so little weight meant plod along, ho.. hum… the other job was more active and human adult weight meant “We’re going barrel racing! Yay!” So a leisurely ride could be a bit of a challenge if not in a small kiddie-ride friendly space if one had non-kiddie mass.

    3. It’s more than that; different groups in the same country can have different training. I was at a talk about horses and they brought up Thoroughbreds bought “off the track”—that is, racing horses who weren’t quite fast enough to make it, so they’re sold as riding horses. One of the major training differences is that pulling back on the bit is a racing signal to go faster, so your typical rider is in a world of trouble if they get on a Thoroughbred that hasn’t been retrained.

  3. This is a great series of posts. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

  4. Glad there’s a resource for us city-folk who don’t know much about these things.

  5. You, the handler, need to keep a circle of personal space around you, about one foot away from your body, and if the horse steps into that space, push him out of it. You don’t want a horse to get in the habit of standing in your space without permission.

    The neighbor’s horses always thought they were in charge. I think that’s what I was doing wrong.

  6. Ridiculously useful for fantasy writers. Lots of good regular stuff and plenty ideas where another culture might do something different but still get the desired result. Thanks!

  7. Really enjoying this series – thanks! I’d love to hear your thoughts on “horse as travel vehicle” and how it’s not a car, or even a motorcycle. ^_^

  8. And if your story also includes donkeys and mules – they are not horses. They are shaped a little differently so they need more tack if you are in rough terrain, and their behaviors can be quite surprising compared to horses. For example, in situations where horses will run, mules often freeze, then go the opposite direction. (Or “why a mule cavalry charge will probably never happen.”)

  9. One of the panels I went to last week (which is why I didn’t see your post then) was titled “A Horse is Not a Subcompact.” One of the panelists is an editor who happened to be GRRM’s horse-knowledge expert. She said one of the first things she had to do when he introduced a troop of horses was to ask about the loaders and handlers, to which his reaction was basically “the what, now?” Horses need a lot of people keeping them together, and he hadn’t even begun to consider that. So if he gets things right, it’s because he has an expert on hand and actually listens to her. 😉

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