Equine Expertise

A Bit More About Me

I have grown up riding and working around horses. I took my first official lesson at age 7, but had been a pony-ride princess whenever I got the chance. I leased, trained, and showed many horses over the years in hunters, jumpers, equitation, 4H, dressage, and gymkhana. 

I’ve helped back (saddle train) ponies taking them from first-sits to first shows. In 4H, I competed in both mounted and knowledge competitions, representing my state at the national knowledge contest twice.

 Like many other horse people, I am always leery when I pick up a book featuring horses. After helping a few other writers with their stories, and making sure the horse stuff was correct (or at least sound enough to pass a PPE) it was suggested I share that knowledge more widely. So, I am building this space to share tidbits so fellow writers can confidently add horses into their stories.

But like any good writer, I know it is far better to show than tell, so I’ve made up a little collection of some of my riding moments and highlights over the years, so you can see that I’m not just another keyboard warrior.

 I also have created a line of equestrian journals, activity books and trivia with my horse-business E.S. Damon Equine and regularly attend shows and clinics to sell those products.

The Thing About Grays   (click the arrow to read) 

So you want a gray horse in your story (a horse some shade between black and white). Why wouldn’t you? They are beautiful, come in many shades and can have really cool markings (called dapples, which also come in different varieties). The gray gene works over the top of other coat color genes, slowly lightening the horse into what many mistakenly call white (a true white horse is extremely rare).

Gray horses are probably the second most popular color I see in fiction (the first being the all time favorite black stallion) In reality, gray horses are on the rare-side—sort of. That  shade of gray you are picturing may only last for a year or so. You see, gray is a horse’s coat that's constantly changing. There is no gray horse that will stay the same shade throughout its life.

The process of ‘graying out’ will look different on each horse, and a baby horse (foal) may not show any hint that it will be gray in the future. A horse who becomes gray can be born with a coat of any base color—it may be black, bay or  chestnut (or any of a plethora of other colors). 

This changing of coat color translates into lovely moments at various points in the horse’s life. For instance, rose grays (horses born chestnut or bright bay) may show a reddish tint to the coat, dapple grays have an almost giraffe-like pattern of small lighter round areas, or show magnificent star dapples with pointed rather than smooth edges. 

These examples usually show up in the earlier years of the graying-out process when there is a good amount of dark hair left on the body. This stage does not last long; usually, by the age of 6-8 years, gray horses are a light, nearly white color. Some may exhibit tiny dark flecks all over; this is called a flea-bitten gray. In some cases, those flecks may be very dense in an area creating what seems to be a whole patch of color—we call this a bloody shoulder mark (though it may appear elsewhere on the body).

So, gray horses can be a fun and beautiful addition to your fictional herd. Just be sure to pay attention to the age of the horse for the most realistic inclusion.

Here is an example of a gray horse as she aged, I rode her when she was 4 (first photo), now she is living her best life as a brood mare in her early teens (last photo) middle photo was around age 7/8yrs.

Equine Professionals   (click the arrow to read) 

Whoever came up with ‘healthy as a horse’ never met one. On an average day they are 1200 pounds of muscle with a tendency toward self-destruction. That said, luckily there are many equine professionals out there to help a hapless horse owner/rider along the way. Maybe some of these people show up in your stories. Let’s make sure the right people are working on the right things.

This topic comes up as I am helping a writing buddy with her fantasy novel. She has realistic horses but different people who care for them. Matching their titles with what she needed them to do in the story was difficult, so here is a quick run-down of some of the major players in horse care and what they do.

The Vet - Maybe the most obvious - a vet is essentially an animal doctor. They have knowledge of a wide range of species and ailments. Generally speaking, with large animals (horses, cows, livestock, etc) the vet comes to the animal. Only in special, often dire (or when a specialist is called for), circumstances does the animal travel to the vet. The vet treats injuries, illnesses, administers medication, puts in stitches, castrates the males, and takes x-rays (yes, those are also portable), among other things. There are also holistic vets—they may offer acupuncture, chiropractic, shockwave therapy, red light therapy, and even homeopathy.

The Farrier - A farrier takes care of the horse’s feet. Hooves may be trimmed (like you would get a pedicure) or shod (horse shoes made, fitted and applied - generally with nails [no this doesn’t hurt them; their feet are made from the same substance as a human fingernail]) Horse shoes are most commonly made of metal (steel), except in the case of specialty shoes for racing or show, which may be aluminum. A farrier will have expert knowledge about hoof shape, balance, and care. They may also offer input when a horse shows lameness, but their knowledge is about the feet and things associated with them. Don’t expect a farrier to give you in-depth info about equine reproduction (unless, of course, your question has to do with feet!).

The (horse) Dentist - Again, quite similar to humans. Horses need dental work too, though not in a cavity-finding, tartar-removing way. As a horse eats, they grind their teeth and the result can be uneven surfaces and sharp points. A horse dentist will use rasping tools to smooth those out and make sure the horse is capable of eating its feed. A vet *may* perform dentistry, but many horse people prefer someone with specialized dentistry training to work on their horses’ teeth.

The Barn Manager - If there is a barn in your story, someone has to be running it. Horse care is never-ending and often unforgiving. Someone has to dish out 2+ meals a day, schedule appointments, make sure there is hay in the loft, the arena is dragged, the fences are standing, stalls are mucked... you get the picture. The barn manager may not physically do all of it on their own, but they make sure it all gets done. They will probably also be the first to notice if a horse seems off in any way—ill or lame—because they are the ‘boots on the ground’. They have everyone on speed dial and probably have the vet’s cell phone number, too.

The Groom - Despite the title, grooms do more than brush horses. They are like a nanny to the horse. They may brush, tack-up and even warm up a horse for its rider, taking over again after the ride to cool down, untack—bathe etc. In a show setting, the groom also will do the braiding of the horse’s mane/tail for the show ring. In some cases, grooms are a bit like valets, if the valet had your car detailed every time you parked it. Also, a good groom is highly respected, and this is not an entry level position.

The Trainer & The Instructor- Sometimes these terms get used interchangeably, and that’s not wrong. Both are there to teach. To be precise, the trainer is teaching the horse, and the instructor teaches the rider. A trainer will often be riding the horse, but may be on the ground helping the horse’s owner. An instructor teaches riders, often on horses owned by the instructor or the riding school they are located at. Both have knowledge of horse training, because even when teaching people, it is important to understand how the horse thinks and remember that you are always teaching the horse too—but the focus is on the rider. A trainer may or may not have an interest in teaching students. Riding is an art form, and a great artist (trainer/rider) may not always be adept at teaching others. In the same vein, someone can be an amazing instructor without being a high level rider.

The Judge - #1 thing to remember - horse people are crazy. We literally pay people to judge us, often in very subjective sports. Judges are generally riders themselves (or retired riders) who have lots of know-how in whatever discipline they are judging. They go through certifications, training and lots of steps to become recognized (aka certified) judges. This certification is in a certain discipline, and sometimes region-specific. A person judging at a rodeo would be unlikely to judge a show jumping competition the next weekend. At a show, a rider is not allowed to approach the judge directly with issues; that is a huge no-no.

Cowboys - I know I will get crap for this—but cowboys actually have to cowboy! They are the dudes working the cattle, training the horses, and/or running the ranch. They know how to lasso, doctor animals, and take off their hats when they enter the house. They are not just some random dude who says ‘ma’am’ and wears a hat that has never seen a day of sun and dirt. Their hands are calloused and their days are long. They may wear chaps, but they are not ass-less. That’s just how chaps are made. They don’t tuck their jeans into their boots either. Please, if you’re writing cowboys, why not inject some authenticity into your writing and write cowboys who actually do the work  they’re supposed to do. 

Horse Life Stages and Genders  (click the arrow to read) 

This is one that comes up all the time, and one that is both very specific and has some leeway. There are many words used to describe horses of different genders at different ages. Let’s take a quick look going in life-stage order. For gender specifics I’ll give a basic, generalization of each, but like any animal (or human) horses are very much individuals and their past and temperament can cause their behavior to vary widely.

Foal - baby horse (or pony - note ponies are not baby horses, it is only a size/breed differentiation) under one year old. Foals usually stand within an hour of being born, and are capable of running around within a day.

Filly - female foal

Colt - male foal - in some cases may also be used interchangeably with foal, but this often feels dated when used this way.

Yearling - a horse that is one year old, up to two years old- can combine with gender - yearling colt/yearling filly/ yearling gelding (see gelding below)

Long Yearling - yearlings approaching their second birthday

Gelding - a neutered male horse. Colts are typically gelded between 6 and 12 months of age. Note - it is uncommon for female horses to be spayed, except in case of extreme medical need. Geldings are known to be even tempered and reliable.

Mare - mature (3 years and up) female horse.  Mares will go through heat cycles several times a year, and may be moody, sensitive or distracted. Signs can include tail raising, excessive peeing and increased interest in males (including geldings).

Stallion - mature (3 years and up) intact (un-gelded) male horse. Stallions may be differentiated by having ‘cresty’ built up necks and overall heavier muscling. They may be more aggressive than geldings, especially when near mares in heat.

Two year olds are typically just referred to as two year olds in combination with gender. When combining ages and gender you may also see/hear stud-colt to refer to a non-gelded young male horse.

When speaking about breeding a couple other terms come in to play:

Sire - a horse’s father

Dam - a horse's mother

Broodmare - a mare used for producing foals. Equine pregnancy lasts about 11 months, mares should not be ridden in the first month of pregnancy but can then be ridden from months 2-8, making the exercise lighter from the 6th month onward.

Stud - stallion used for breeding - a farm where horse breeding takes place may be called a ‘stud farm’