While there are hundreds of breeds, horses also fall into different types; not to be confused with one another.
Whether you’re a newbie equestrian eager to learn the reins or a horse aficionado looking to brush up on your equine knowledge, this guide on the different types of horses is here to satisfy your curiosity.
Introduction to the Different Types of Horses
Where did our relationship with horses start?
It all started thousands of years ago in the Eurasian Steppes when humans realized horses could become our transport and agricultural power.
Over this time, we soon realized that different horses were suited for different tasks.
Some were destined to be the heavyweights of the equine world, while some became stars of the racetrack and others our reliable companions. I could go on about all the interesting horse facts out there, but for now, let’s get into it starting with horse breed vs horse type.
The difference between horse breed and horse type
Despite all horses and ponies belonging to the same species, Equus caballus, there are various different types and hundreds of breeds out there. Of course, they all come with their own special set of characteristics and quirks.
Generally, horse type refers to broader categories based on their intended use or physical characteristics. On the other hand, horse breeds delve deeper into the intricate details, focusing on specific lineages, physical traits, and even geographic origins.
How we characterise horses
Physical characteristics: This includes their size, body structure, and coat colour.
Use: Some horses are specifically bred and trained for riding, whether it’s for trail rides or competitive sports. Others are bred for various types of work, such as herding or ploughing fields.
Temperament: Horses can exhibit a wide range of personalities, from energetic and spirited (often referred to as “hot-blooded”) to calm and docile.
Gait: This refers to the way they move. Some have a traditional walk, trot, or canter such as a Quarter Horse. Others may have a four-beat gait or running walk such as a Tennessee Walking Horse.
Region/origin: Horses are also characterised by the region or country they originated from.
Historical significance: Some breeds have played pivotal roles in human history, such as war horses and those used in early transportation.
The largest and tallest type of horse is the draught horse. These gentle giants – called draft horses in the US – are a sight to behold with their tall stature, immense strength, and impressive weight.
They have a remarkable ability to pull twice their weight, making them useful as agricultural workers and carriage horses.
But draught horses weren’t limited to farm life alone; they also played a role in battles and military endeavours.
How to spot them
You could spot a draught horse a mile away – just find the horse with its head held high above the rest.
An unmistakable feature of draught horses is their heavy body structure. They tower at around 17 hands high (hh) at the withers and tip the scales at 700-900+ kgs.
Another common trait is the feathering on their lower legs.
You can often spot a draught horse by its calm and level-headed temperament. They’re the epitome of what it means to be “cold-blooded” in the horse world – not in the literal sense, of course.
Examples of Draught Horses
Belgium gave us the mighty Belgian Draught Horse, known for its incredible strength and work ethic. Over in France, the impressive Percheron was born – an incredibly adaptable and willing horse.
Scotland brought us arguably one of the most famous draught horses, the Clydesdale Horse. With their imposing appearance and feathery legs, they’re popular as parade horses. And let’s not forget about England, where the iconic Suffolk Punch and Shire Horse originated.
The Dutch also contributed with the lighter and more graceful Friesian, a versatile horse used both in harness and under saddle.
All of the above are among some of the strongest horse breeds in the world
Light horse breeds are the sleek and speedy companions of the equine world. While they may not have the towering presence of their draught cousins, they make up for it with their agility and versatility.
How to spot them
Light horses are approximately 14.2 hands high or taller at the withers. They weigh around 400-500 kg, making them lighter on their hooves.
As the most common type of horse, they have a range of uses and excel in various disciplines. Whether it’s pleasure riding, horse racing, or showing, these equines are true all-rounders.
Examples of Light Horses
You’ve probably heard of the famous Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred Horse, known for their speed and competitive edge on the racetrack.
Another popular light horse breed is the Arabian, a versatile breed that does exceptionally well in endurance riding. This breed has played a pivotal role in the origins of many light breeds we know and love today.
Athleticism and grace come together to form remarkable equine athletes, otherwise known as sport horses or warmbloods. These horses are all about competition and impressing the crowd.
While the purpose and breeding of sports horses are similar worldwide, the exact definition of a “sport horse” may differ slightly from country to country. For instance, here in the UK, the term refers to any horse suitable for dressage, eventing, or show jumping.
How to spot them
These horses have a special blend of traits that enable them to perform at such high levels. It all starts with their body structure. A sport horse needs correct leg angles, a nicely sloping shoulder, strong muscles, and a spirit that can deliver performance.
Whether they’re purebred, established warmblood types, or clever crossbreeds, sport horses come in various shapes and sizes.
When it comes to spotting one, you might notice their well-defined, muscular body and graceful suspension in their movements.
Examples of Sport Horses
The Irish Sport Horse combines strength and speed, thanks to cross-breeding of the Irish Draught Horse and the Thoroughbred.
Hailing from the Netherlands, we have the Dutch Warmblood, a sport horse that excels in eventing and is a sight to behold in dressage competitions.
The Hanoverian from Germany is a crowd favourite, demonstrating a strong desire to please and excel in various disciplines.
Lastly, we can’t forget the Holsteiner. Renowned for their athleticism and trainability, they’re the go-to horses for both novices and Olympic athletes.
Gaited horses have a unique way of moving their legs independently – almost as if they have extra “gears”. This means that they always have one foot on the ground.
These horses have been selectively bred for their natural gaited tendencies. While some gaited horses always exhibit smooth gaits such as ambling gaits, others may trot or pace, depending on their training.
How to spot them
Gaited horses share a common trait: they all have a special pace that distinguishes them from other horses.
But how can you tell a gaited horse to one that’s simply moving a little oddly? Well, these horses traditionally have a four-beat gait. Each foot hits the ground in a specific order, creating a fancy dance of right hind, right front, left hind, left front.
You’ll notice that most gaited horses carry their heads high (although that’s not to say they won’t try and stop for a quick snack on some grass when you’re out hacking).
Examples of Gaited Horses
The Icelandic Horse are sure-footed beauties that have a special gait, the “tölt”, that offers a comfortable ride over rugged terrains.
Another gaited horse breed that excels in pleasure riding is the Mountain Pleasure Horse, a breed that demonstrates a wonderful calm temperament and smooth gait.
Lastly, we have the Tennesse Walking Horse. A favourite in North America, they were bred for gentle rides due to their smooth and unique four-beat running walk. It impossible to describe the gait of these horses so we have added a video below
When we hear the term “warmblood,” we often think of those impressive continental sport horses whose names are adorned with this label. But this classification actually includes a vast number of middleweight horses.
Warmblood breeds have a pedigree that combines both cold and hot-blooded horses, resulting in an exceptional horse.
How to spot them
You could consider the warmbloods as a combination of heavy-set wrestlers and agile sprinters. They’re beautiful, reliable, graceful, and feature a muscular build that speaks volumes about their strength.
Spotting a warmblood is pretty simple – you’ll notice their well-developed muscles, agile movements, and smooth gait.
In the world of horse competitions, warmbloods are serious champs – consistently ranking among the top contenders.
Examples of Warmbloods
Several warmblood breeds have gained popularity worldwide. In Europe, we have the Hanoverian, Dutch Warmblood, Oldenburg, and Trakehner, all known for their exceptional athletic abilities and versatile nature.
Interestingly, there are a lot of Trakehner horses in the desert in Namibia, set loose by German gold propectors.
Outside of Europe, you can find popular American breeds that fall into the warmblood category. Take the American Quarter Horse and Tennessee Walking Horse, for example.
They may be small in stature, measuring up to around 14.2 hands high, but ponies pack a big personality.
But what are ponies? Are they just shorter horses? Well, it’s actually a more complicated answer than you might think. A pony is still classified as a pony even if it’s a whisker over 14.2hh.
How to spot them
You know how you would spot a draught horse with its head much higher above the rest? Well just do the opposite and squat down low and you’ll know who’s the pony of the herd!
But don’t mistake these compact cuties for a miniature or small horse. Ponies have stockier bodies, heavier bones, thicker necks, and shorter heads. Not to mention their proportionately shorter legs, strong hooves, and thick manes and tails.
Originally bred for work, these sturdy little equines are tough. They come from rugged terrains and were used as mini draught horses. Today, they are used for driving, riding and even jumping and dressage.
Examples of Ponies
The most common and one of the the smallest ponies is the iconic Shetland Pony. Standing at a tiny 10 hands high (only around 1m), the Shetland Pony is not only known for its pint-sized stature but also for its intelligence and mischievous streak.
Another incredibly popular pony breed, and a true British gem, is the Welsh Pony. Welsh Ponies come in four “sections”, one of which also falls under the distinction of “Cob horse“. The Welsh Mountain Pony (also known as Section A) is the smallest of the four.
Grade horses are simply those whose family tree (pedigree) isn’t documented or completely unknown. Think of them as the moggies of the horse world.
These horses are not part of any breed registry or organization. If you’re not interested in competitions or breeding programs that require a pedigree, grade horses make a great choice. Cross bred horses can avoid genetic issues faced by pedigrees and they can take the best traits from each breed.
How to spot them
Some grade horses might have a bit of a backstory or some hints about their breeding. But, for one reason or another, they didn’t end up with any official registration papers.
They differ from deliberately crossbred horses; Grade horses are usually the result of accidental crosses between different horse breeds. As such, they can vary widely in size, shape, and temperament.
Examples of Grade Horses
Since grade horses don’t come with a documented lineage, it can be hard to provide examples. Although, there are some grade horses that have become planned crosses, obtaining their own breed registry in time.
These include the Quarab (American Quarter Horse/Arabian horse), AraAppaloosa (Arabian and Appaloosa mix), and Anglo-Arabian (Thoroughbred/Arabian).
Some horses, although they are less than 14.2 hands high are not called ponies, but are always called horses.
Examples of Small Horses
A popular small horse breed comes from western Norway, known as the Norwegian Fjord. Featuring a “light draught” build, they possess both strength and agility.
Another is the Icelandic Horse, known for its enviable double coat designed to brave the unforgiving Icelandic climate.
I often hear people say “A pony is just a mini horse!” Sorry to burst your bubble, but a minature horse is not a pony in disguise. This proud little creature marches to the beat of its own hoof.
Here at Strathorn, we affectionately call them “expensive lawn mowers”. They are very cute, but they are really too small to be used as ridden horses for anyone but the very smallest of riders.
How to spot them
Do you feel something nibbling on your ankle? If you look down and see what resembles a little shrunken-down version of a horse, you’ve just spotted a minature horse!
What classifies this type of horse as a “minature horse” is that they’re no taller than 8.5 hands high at the withers. Unlike ponies with their stocky builds, miniature horses are like the pocket-sized versions of their full-sized horse siblings.
Standing proudly at just around 6 to 8 hands high is the Falabella from Argentina. This diminutive guy holds the title of one of the tiniest horse breeds around.
Wild horses can be feral horses that once belonged to humans but have been set free, or they can be true wild horses, never tamed by humans at all.
How to spot them
The term “wild horse” can sometimes be used to describe herds of feral horses that roam freely. These horses are descendants of domesticated horses, but they have returned to a wild state, thriving in their untamed environment.
These horses should not be mistaken for the truly “wild” horse subspecies that existed in ancient times but are no longer found in their original form in the modern world.
Examples of Wild Horses
In the United States, we have the iconic Mustang, a free-roaming horse breed of the American West. While often considered “wild,” Mustangs are technically classified as feral horses since they are descendants of once-domesticated breeds.
In Australia, we encounter the spirited Brumby. They’re found in the rugged landscapes of the Australian Alps, Queensland, and the Northern Territory.
But among all wild, free-roaming horse breeds, the Przewalski’s horse stands as the only true remaing wild horse breed. It once teetered on the brink of extinction, but thankfully breeding and reintroduction programs have sparked a glimmer of hope for its population recovery,
Are all breeds of horses and ponies the same species?
Yes, all pony breeds and horse breeds belong to the species, Equus caballus. They share a common ancestry and are part of the same family tree.
What are the 3 categories of horses?
The three categories of horses are ponies, light horse breeds, and heavy horse breeds. Ponies are typically small and stocky in size.
Light horse breeds are working, racing, or riding horses. Heavy horse breeds are known as draught (or draft) horses and are known for their large size and strength.
What is the most common horse in the UK?
One notable horse breed is the Shire Horse, a magnificent draught horse, as well as the Suffolk Punch. Another common breed is the Cleveland Bay – England’s oldest riding horse breed. Additionally, Thoroughbred horses are also common throughout the UK.
How many horse breeds are there in Great Britain?
Despite being a small island nation, we boast an impressive variety of popular horse breeds. From imposing Shire and Clydesdale horses to adorable Shetlands, rugged Highlands to elegant Hackneys, there are 17 native horse breeds of Britain.