Learn How to Speak the Language of Equestrian!

If you are going to work in the world of horses, you will need to learn to “speak Equestrian” if you want to blend in and be respected as an equine photographer. No, I’m not talking about “Mr. Ed” here, talking to the horses as they talk back… but better than that, learning to talk and understand the unique language of horse people! Here you will read about some common things horse people will say and what they mean. We will go over horse tack and horse anatomy basics as well as touch on horse colors aka “flavors”. There are some distinctions in language between the English and Western disciplines, so read on for a bit of a horse education especially tailored for the equine photographer!

The Horse

Most of us are familiar with basic anatomy of our four legged friends such as eyes, ears, mouth, back and legs. . But for review, and incase you didn’t know, here is a chart/ image we created that will remind you of the different parts of a horse and will come in handy when speaking to his/her owner, especially when you are doing a portrait! There is a link to download this at the bottom for your reference.

Horse Anatomy Basics

The Poll; This area is on the very top of a horses head, just behind and in between the ears.

The Forehead;  just like ours,  is located above the eyes.

The Forelock; of a horse is what you may refer to as Bangs.

The Withers; are at the base of the horses neck, the raised area before the back begins.

Chest; above the forelegs and below the neck, just like us two leggeds.

The Rump; This is the horses butt or rear end!


Thighs; The powerful muscles in the back legs. 

Knees;  yep, horses have em and they are pretty knobby!

Chestnuts; …..Looks like a peanut on the inside of all four legs.

Elbows; the horse’s elbows, at the top of the legs.

Hooves; not feet, rounded hooves… not split like elk & moose

Shoulders;  at the top of the two front legs.

Forelegs; the two front legs.

Feathers; draft horses, gypsy vanners,  friesians and haflingers and the like  will all have feathers or long hairs on their lower legs just above their hooves.

Muzzle; this refers to his mouth area, below the nose area.

The Tack

A horse’s saddle etc is called Tack. You will hear about the “Tack shop” this is where you can buy saddles, reins, halters lead ropes etc. Horses will have their own tack, just like we have our own jacket or pants. Tack is fitted to its horse and it isn’t great to put a saddle on a horse that isn’t his. This practice is done in trail ride operations but can cause sores on the horse back and is generally  frowned upon by horse owners.

Saddle;  what the rider sits in and can be a large heavy padded leather seat (Western Saddle) or a thin pad made of lightweight synthetic materials such as the modern english saddle.

The light & streamlined tack for the english rider.

Reins;  whatever you do, don’t call these strings!!! These are made of leather or rope and attach to the bit to give the rider a direct line of communication to the horse.

Bit;  this goes in the horses mouth and there are a few different kinds. But basically the metal bit goes into the mouth and the reins are moved left or right to tell the horse which way to turn, or pulled back to tell the horse to stop or back up depending on how long you keep pulling.

The heavy durable western tack, ready for the trail!



Halter;  this is not for riding, but for leading the horse. IT can be leather or nylon (like a dog collar) and is non invasive, used to guide or lead the horse.




Lead rope;  this is made of leather or nylon, or rope. This has a clip that you can attach to the halter and lead the horse.

Stirrups; this is where the riders feet go and most of you know there are two, one of each foot. They are designed to put your weight into (keeping some weight off the horses back). Many horses are trained with leg pressure and cues you give with the stirrups such as a small kick to get the horse going.

Spurs;  these used to be the only way a horse was trained, jabbing the sharp rusty spurr into the horse until he complied- it was evil and barbarrack. Now spurs are used as training “enhancements” and are tiny and rounded. You should NEVER jam the spurs into the horse, that is not what they are designed for. If you see a rider doing this, they are not a good horseman and are being abusive. You can find somewhere to report such behavior, many shows will not tolerate a rider miss-handling their horse.

Common Horse breeds

In some of our other articles, we have talked about horse breeds. Some of the more common you will see in the Western world will be Quarter Horses, mustangs, Paints, & Appaloosas. Not to confuse, but paints aka The American Painted horse  and Appaloosas can be registered breeds. They can also just be a horse color or flavor! IN fancy competitions or shows, you may also run across Passafinos (known for their beautiful fast gait)or Morgan’s with their handsome good looks and all around great horse for trail riding or western events.

Quarter horses come in all different shapes,sizes and colors, but are usually 15-17 hands. They are usually robust in build with a large powerful rump and hind legs. Originally they were bred to run the quarter mile FAST! They make a great all around trail horse and you have probably riden one if you have participated in a commercial trail ride. You will see them in horse events like cutting, reining and sorting. They can also be VERY EXPENSIVE if they are trained in cutting or reining.

Left to right quarter horses, b&w painted horse with white stockings, a strip & star, dark bay with black stockings, a star & blaze, sorrel horse with star.

Mustangs! These are the only wild horses we have here in the US and are all originally  descended from spanish colonial horses. Now the mustang is a combination of many other breeds and types of horses which became our wild mustangs that roam free today in almost all 50 states.  They all have the special neck brand that will identify they as a pure mustang. They can come in any color, and can be painted or appaloosa flavors as well! Mustangs have a distinct classically western look to them and often a squarish large head that will give them away.

Appaloosas and Paints may be quarter horses or registered as their own breed. These horses have a reputation of being more difficult by some old school cowboy types, but from the horse people I have spent time with, that is an old tale. I have met some super sweet paints and “appees”.

English shows you will see a lot of Warmbloods, tall leggy horses that come in black, bay and chestnut colorations.They have a powerful, stately presence. These horses can cost as much as your car and even your house! They are bred to jump or dance and are probably the most common horse you will see in the dressage arena.

Friesians, gorgeous black horses with flowing manes and feathered feet used to carry armored Knights! You will spot them in movies set in ancient times of kings and knights.

You will see lots of Arabians in english shows and a few in western shows as well. They are derived from the far eastern desert lands of Arabia and are super heat tolerant and have amazing stamina. You will know them from their distinct shaped face and springing prancing gait.

The distinct delicate face of an Arabian in a flea bitten grey color.

Andalusians and their larger cousins, Lusitanos are from the Iberian peninsula and come in white, dapple grey (see horse colors below) bay, and chestnut. They like the arabians have gorgeous natural gait and are comfortable to ride and beautiful movers in the arena!

Thoroughbreds, Most everyone knows these are horses bred to run and FAST! Tall, thin and powerful, this is the breed of choice for horse racing. You will often see these horses in Jumping shows as they are amazing athletes and are great in the high jumps! Many are rescued from an ugly fate when their horse racing days are over. You will see riders in shirts with the initials “OTT” stands for “off the track”, their horses are ex-racers.

Gypsy Vanners and Drum Horses. These horses were derived for the larger draft horses and bred down in size to pull carts. Also European descendants, they have the leg feathers like the shires and fresianss, robust bodies but move beautifly and are popular for dressage.

Haflingers and other ponies

You will see these horses more in kids shows and cart racing. They are fast, sturdy but not great for general riding.

Big girl Shire Mom & her new colt. Both have blazes!

The big boyz…. Shires, Belgians,  Percherons and Clydesdales are the four most common. If you have ever seen a parade, you have seen a clydesdale, shire or percheron pulling a wagon or sleigh. This are the largest horses standing 16-18 + hands, weighing in around 1800 pounds on average! There are weight pulling competitions where you may see these horse competing. Mostly you will see them pulling a wagon, cart or sleigh in a race or winter event.

Horse Flavors

Horses come in many different flavors. There are some variations that are breed specific, but here we will outline the basics to get you started.

Black. The horse will be deep black in color but can have white socks and still be a black horse.

Far left to right; painted horse, sorrel with blaze, painted sorrel with stockings, b&w paint with stockings & strip or race, appaloosa.

Bay. This horse will be a deep dark brown. He too can have white socks, short or tall. Sometimes they will have a dappled pattern of browns in their fur visible in bright sunlight. Stunning for sure!

Chestnut. He will be a warm brown, reddish brown or caramel colored brown. If you are in the Western world, he will be called a Sorrel. IF you are working with english riders, call him a chestnut. There are many variations of this chestnut color and he can also have white socks (not black!).

White. Can be all white or mostly white. There are some different variations of white horses and some specialty white breeds.

Left to right; Dunn with blaze and short socks (Coronets), sorrel with blaze, sorrel with bald face and stocking & socks!

Grey. This can be a white horse with tiny spots speckled all over, he would be referred to as a “flea bitten grey”. If he has large blotches of grey in different degrees of shade, he is a “dapple grey”. Both grey horses get lighter and whiter as they get older!

Dunn. A sandy warm colored horse, dusky in color. A true dunn horse will have a dark brown or black stripe down his back. He may also have some tiger striping in his legs. These can be stunning horses and are very Western!

Buckskin. You will see these a lot in old western movies as they are striking horses. Creamy warm caramel colored body with dark brown or black socks and dark brown or black mane. If you ever saw the animated movie called “Spirit”, he was a classic Buckskin!

Left to right; red roan with race, blue roan with blaze and black stockings, b&w painted horse with white stockings & star.

Palomino. I can’t help but think this horse should be ridden by a blonde haired blue eyed girl! Gorgeous light beige horse with blond mane and tail. They can also have white socks.

Pinto (not to be confused with Paint) is a term that refers to the colorful coat pattern and is not the name of a particular breed of horse.  These are one of my favorite flavors. There are many kinds of pinto horses and it can get very confusing! They can be black & white, grey & white, cream & white, brown & white etc.

Appaloosa. This like the paint is also a breed or color variation.  They can have many different variations of spots in different patterns. They often have skinny tails and sparse manes adding to their classic western look.

Roan. Also more common in the western breeds, there is a red roan and a blue roan. The roan coat is a mix of white and color. The red roan may have white socks or be solid. The blue roan will be solid throughout. Another variation is the Grulla, which can be a brownish blue gray color.  Another favorite of mine!

Horse Measurements

Hands how to measure a horse For most of us, measurements are in feet or meters. In the horse word, horse height is measured in hands. This began way back ….horse traders, agreed that the human “hand” will always represent 4 inches, and will always measure the height from level ground to the withers.

Cold Blood, warm blood and Hot! There are three types of horses that determine their temperment.

Cold blooded, these are the draft horses like Percherons, Clydesdales, Belgians and shires. They are usually very large horses (17-20 hands) and their temperament is usually docile and sweet. Gentle giants if you will.

Warmbloods. These horses fall in the middle in size. Very trainable and  fairly easy going temperament. You will see Warmbloods in both dressage and jumper shows.Some common Warmblood breeds are Dutch warmbloods, Holsteiners & Trakeners. Friesians may fall under the warmblood category.  Andalusians, Lusitanos and are somewhere in between warmblood and hotbloods.

Hot bloods! The only two hot blooded breeds are the thoroughbred & Arabian. They are amazing horses and as long as you understand their somewhat flighty and high strung personality, you can fall in love with these affectionate high stepping spooky horses!

Horse markings

Beyond color, there are some horse markings that you should familiarize yourself with and are very helpful when sorting horses in a western show with no rider numbers!

On a single colored horse like a bay or chestnut a horse may have the following common markings on his face. There are many more but these are the most usual.

Blaze, this is a wide stripe of white down his face from his forelock to the tip of his muzzle.

Strip or Race, a skinny version of the blaze.

Snip, a whitish marking on the muzzle, often triangle shaped.

When a horse has a mostly white face, he is called bald faced. (same in cattle)

Often horses will be solid in color and have just one white mark in between their eyes. This is called a “star”.

When a solid colored horse has white legs from above the knee down, this is called a “stocking”. “Socks” can be short or tall, almost to the knee but not above.

Horse moves….

In shows and if you do some private riders riding, you will hear the term equitation. This is how you sit and control your horse. Equitation is judged at the walk, trot and canter.

The trot is a quickened pace but not a run, it is maybe similar to us skipping instead of walking or running.

The canter is a beautiful controlled run that is done in equitation, dressage and hunter/jumper events.

Gallop! This is petal to the metal, no holds bard… you see this alot in western movies, and some western horse events like cowboy mounted shooting “the rundown”. But you won’t see galloping in english events, only a controlled canter.

Horsemanship Speak

You may hear a rider say…”I was too in his mouth” during my test (dressage event). That means they were too tight with the reins, pulling back too hard.

“She didn’t have a good seat”… this means the rider was standing or bouncing and didn’t have her rear down in the saddle as in proper equitation.

This rider does not have control of her horse. Notice her foot is out of the stirup, she’s out of the saddle-doesn’t have a good seat, and he is rearing up.

“He was too heavy on the front”. This means in your image the horse’s weight is in the front (no good!).

EARLY!! The horses back hooves have not left the ground! Not a money shot!

“LATE!!!” You may hear a rider say the horse is late or LATE. This means you captured the jump too late and the horse is already over the mid or hanging point of the jump.

“Early!” You are early as the horses back hooves have not yet left the ground, you are too early on the jump.

“He’s too light in the rump”.. Your images angle has made the horses rump or butt look too skinny! No good for most breeds as the horses power comes from that large robust rump full of muscles!

“That horse is Hot” This is not referring to the horses good looks! It means the horse is really fired up and not in a great ridding mindset!

The amazing horse, so much history, so many breeds, sizes and flavors! I hope you enjoyed a learned a few things about our equine friend, the horse. There is much more info out there and you could spend many more hours reading up on these fantastic beautiful animals! My writings are from mine and my husbands own experience and are subjective! I can recommend this book to start learning more about the horse if you really want to be successful in equine photography. Check it out, it’s an easy and fun read: Horses for Dummies!

Hopefully you will study up and have more confidence chatting with the horse riders and owners you will encounter as you enter the world of equestrian photography! For more info on all you will need to get started in this fun and fast paced industry, go to our resource pages: Resource pages for all your Horse Photography needs! You will make some horse friends along the way too and have your favorite breeds and flavors as you go! Best of luck and cheers for now!



















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