Main Types of Horse Characteristics: Know your Horse!

Humans have been interacting with horses for centuries and their strength and character has contributed much to human society and development. Horses have a number of characteristics that combine to make them special members of the mammalian class of animals, Equus Ferus.

Prey Versus Predator

In nature horses are prey animals, meaning they are food for predators, so many of their characteristics have developed around their survival. Their natural environment is relatively open ground like on a steppe or open plain so, if they are to survive for long, they need to be able to sense danger and read other animal behaviour close by to react in an instant As humans we can learn about these characteristics and behaviours so that we can train horses in ways they understand to remain safe around them.

Horses On Alert

Sight is one of the most important senses for equines and they have large eyes placed forward and to the side of their heads. This gives them almost 340o vision with only small blind spots to the rear and front. Horses spend a lot of time with their heads down grazing on grass so while doing this the move their heads from side to side to cover 360o. To see forward better they will lower their heads; to see to the rear they will step sideways.

A horse that is prone to shying from rapid movements to the side can be fitted with blinkers which are usually only used on horses in harness or racehorses on a track. Horses also see better than humans in the dark and can distinguish different colours.

Hearing is well developed and they can hear a broader range than humans. If a horse is easily distracted by sounds, some riders cover their competition horses’ ears with specially designed ear covers.

Fleet of Foot

Horses first defence is to flee so they have great natural speed. This means if a horse gets startled or frightened its instinctive reaction is to move rapidly away from possible danger. This can have a negative affect when handling or riding as a horse’s reflexes are so fast a rider may become unseated or a handler knocked over.

Many million years ago horses were the size of dogs and had five toes. The vestiges of these toes have atrophied up their legs to the point they no longer touch the ground. They have evolved into odd-toed ungulates with a single hoof at the bottom of strong long legs. This hoof is so well adapted it is hard enough to walk over rocks and hard ground with only some wear. However horses can also be fitted with metal shoes or horse boots to offer protection.

Horses move through different paces depending on their activity. The slowest pace is the walk, when all four legs move at alternate beats with only one leg off the ground at any given moment. To move faster they trot or pace where there legs move two by two and there is a period of suspension. To cover ground faster they move to a canter which is a three time movement then to a gallop which is similar but four time. Some horses can do extra gaits depending on their breed.

Stay Calm

If they perceive fear, horses will follow the reaction of other horses, animals, or humans,. This can be problematic when a human is frightened of the horse because the horse picks up on this body language and also become frightened. A spiral of fear develops. Whereas, providing the handler or rider remains calm, the horse will gain trust and remain calm too.

Herbivores From The Plains

Because horses are herbivores they must consume a lot of food to ensure they have enough energy. Unlike a lot of other grazing animals that ruminate, horses have only one stomach so digestion is carried out along the whole digestive system which functions best with foods with a lot of fibre like grass. Only feed high energy foods if your horse cannot obtain enough calories from the fibre based diet they must have. High energy foods can cause problems if they are not properly digested before entering the large intestine so ‘little and often’ is a rule to apply if you are feeding supplementary food. Many owners choose to buy ready-made feed supplements to ensure their horses are getting good quality that includes vitamins and minerals.

Horses grow hair coats that vary with the seasons – short in summer, long in winter. Different breeds are more adapted to different climates. Arabians and Thoroughbreds are adapted to hot countries and their coats are generally finer. Whereas those like Shetland ponies and Russian breeds can live outside in freezing temperatures without a problem because of their thick winter coats.

Caring for Horses

To make it easier to care for horses in winter owners often purchase rugs to keep them clean and warm even when grazing outside. There are many different rug styles and sizes with optional additions like neck rugs and tail flaps. If a horse does wear a cover they need care by regular grooming. There are a number of items in a grooming kit to help clean and polish their coats. A Dandy brush removes mud and rough marks while a Body Brush smooths and polishes the hair. There are also curry combs, mane combs, and hoof picks to add to the kit.

Considering their size and power, horses are generous and relatively easily trained. Providing no one harms them, horses usually allow handlers to fit a number of headcollar options to their heads. Headcollars can be made of various materials from rope, synthetic webbing or leather attached to lead ropes for leading, training and tying up. From there training can progress to riding and all the different gear that each equestrian discipline requires – bridles, saddles, harness, training aids, etc.


So now you can understand a little more about how a horse’s characteristics affect how they respond to the world around them. Always keep these characteristics in mind when working around them to keep them at ease and yourself safe.

About The Author

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Equiniction Team

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