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Horses - tack talk, and more

PUBLISHED: 08:11 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 08:54 28 March 2014

There is lots of horse termiology to get to grips with

There is lots of horse termiology to get to grips with

Wendy gets with the horse lingo

People who are enthusiastic about any hobby, interest or sport develop a specialised language all of their own. Sailors talk about ‘jib sheets’, or ‘main sheets’ which aren’t sheets at all but the ropes that attach to the jib or mainsail. They call left ‘port’ and right ‘starboard’ and like to confuse non-sailors by talking about sailing ‘close to the wind’ and ‘going about’ and ‘luffing up’.

Farmers are just as bad. I’ve never quite got the hang of cattle terminology. It’s not good enough to look into a field and say “there are some cows”. Invariably they are not cows but heifers, bullocks, steers, beef etc… Sheep are even worse – yes I know that girl sheep are ewes and boy sheep are rams but what are tips, hoggets, hogs? I always thought a pig was a hog.

A newcomer to the world of horses perhaps has the hardest time of all. There is a steep learning curve ahead of them. No doubt there are all sorts of regional variations but here follows a broad introduction to horse-related terminology. To make things easier, I’ve sub divided them into categories.

Tack and equipment

First of all you have the saddle and bridle. The saddle is held on to the horse’s back by a pair of girths, the rider sits in the seat of the saddle and he places his feet in stirrup irons. He can adjust the level or length of his stirrups using the stirrup leathers. A protective pad called a numnah may be used under the saddle to increase the comfort for the horse.

The bridle goes on the horse’s head. The rider holds the reins which attach on the rings of a bit (usually metal) in the horse’s mouth. So far, so good. Everything is fairly straightforward. BUT, there are numerous different kinds of bits to put in a horse’s mouth: loose ring snaffles, eggbut snaffles, kimblewick, pelham, french bridoon, gags, bubble bits, to name a few of the more common ones.

There are also bitless bridles which are designed to control the horse through pressure on his nose. You can also choose from a selection of nose bands, such as the simple cavesson, the drop noseband, the flash, the grakle (or figure of eight or crossover), and the kineton. All of these except the cavesson are designed to improve the control of the horse by preventing him from opening his mouth to try and evade the action of the bit. The cavesson just makes the horse’s head look pretty.

You may also hear of grass reins and cruppers. Usually used on children’s ponies, the first attach from the saddle through the top of the bridle to the bit and prevent the pony diving his head down to get the grass, and pulling his young rider with him. The crupper runs from the back of the saddle to a rounded, padded, leather loop under the tail and prevents the saddle slipping forward – particularly useful on small fat ponies that have no withers to speak of. The withers, by the way, is the point between the neck and the back just in front of the saddle. This is the point where the horse’s height is measured from, to the ground.

So that covers some of your basic gear, all of which goes under the name of tack.

Describing a horse

A true test of your perceived horse acumen is how well you can judge a piece of horseflesh. It helps to learn a few phrases with which to describe a horse so you can mutter knowledgeably about avoiding spavins, splints and boxy feet, and discuss the merits of a sloping shoulder, good bone and a well set on neck. First of all, get the basics right:
is your equine a horse or a pony? A filly or a mare? A colt, stallion or gelding or possibly even a rig? A horse stands over 15hh and a pony less than that (except for the Icelandic horse which is described as a horse despite standing only about 13-14hh.)

 A female horse under one year is a filly, after that, she’s a mare. A male horse under a year is a colt and after that, he’s a stallion, unless he’s been gelded in which case he is a gelding. If the operation wasn’t complete and he was only half gelded, then he is a rig. Horses of one year old are known as yearlings, then they become two year olds, three year olds etc. When they reach the age of eight or nine, they become aged.

Stand back and observe your horse. Does he have a Roman nose? Cow hocks or sickle hocks? Perhaps he’s roach backed and cold backed with a goose rump and a ewe neck. Or is it a bull neck with a barrel chest and a herring gut? If he also has a wall eye and a mean eye, then I would stay clear of him… the terms used to describe a horse’s conformation aren’t necessarily very scientific but many of them successfully conjure up an image of the type of horse in question.

A Roman nose isn’t necessarily a bad thing – such a horse will have a larger head with a big sloping nose and often, an honest type of temperament. A ewe neck is a thin neck with muscle on the underside, and a bull neck is a very short thick neck. If your horse has an upright shoulder, his stride will be shorter and more jarring for the rider. An upright shoulder is fine in a draught horse but not so good for a riding horse. Cow hocks are carried far apart while sickle hocks point too close together. (The hock is the big joint in the hind leg that is the equivalent of our elbow.) A roach back arches up, while a sway back has an excessive dip. A cold back describes a horse that reacts to a saddle by humping up or dropping his back down.

A barrel chest is as it sounds – a big wide chest – while a herring gut describes a horse that looks tucked up a bit like a greyhound.

A horse’s eye should be kind and friendly. A wall eye is one that has blue pigmentation in it. This does no harm but it’s not generally popular. A mean or pig eye is usually small with the whites showing and denotes a slightly dodgy character.

Diseases and illnesses

Hopefully you will never have to experience any of the following ailments with your horse, but it’s helpful to know the following maladies exist should you need to impress your friends at the riding stables.

 Laminitis is usually a spring and summer phenomenon. Fat ponies gorge on lush grass which plays havoc with their digestive system and causes toxins to enter their blood. The blood supply to the feet becomes restricted and the sensitive laminae in the hoof becomes inflamed, but their swelling is restricted by the horny nature of the feet and so the pony is in agony and leans back on his heels to try and relieve the pressure. The laminae hold the bone in the hoof (the pedal or coffin bone) in place and, in severe cases, laminae are damaged so much that the bone drops and eventually penetrates the sole of the hoof. The moral of the story is to restrict your pony’s access to that lovely fresh green grass that is so good for cattle and sheep. 

Colic is a digestive upset that horses are prone to. It can be due to a build up of gas in the gut or a blockage. The horse suffers from abdominal pain and may sweat, bite at his stomach, paw the ground and get up and lie down frequently in his discomfort. Do not hesitate to call the vet.

Strangles is a bacterial infection, highly infectious and causes the glands under the jaw to swell and become infected. Abscesses form, which eventually burst. Early signs are flu-like symptoms with a temperature and cough.

COPD is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease also known as RAO: Recurrent Airway Disease. This is an allergic condition affecting the lungs characterised by a deep hollow cough. Most common in horses kept in poorly ventilated stables and fed inferior forage.

Thrush is a fungal infection in the hoof characterised by a foul smell and caused by too much standing around in wet, dirty conditions.

The list could go on forever: navicular, azotoria, stringhalt, fistulous withers, cushings syndrome, sweet itch and grass syndrome are just a few that you will hear about, but I’ll allow you to look those ones up for yourself.

Don’t be put off if you’re not conversant with the finer points of equine terminology. The enjoyment of horses is in the pleasure of working with them and caring for them. This doesn’t necessarily mean being able to name each piece of obscure saddlery hanging in the tack room, or even to describe the symptoms of the various diseases. As long as you’re observant, learn enough to care for your horse properly and take an interest in the whole subject, then before you know it you will be talking about snaffles and martingales as if you’ve been doing it all your life. 


This article is from the July 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.

<< To order back issues click the link to the left.


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