Horses Facts

Horses ['hȯrsez]

A mammal with four legs, hooves, flowing mane and tail that people use for riding, carrying and pulling things.


Andalusian horse in field of flowers on farm

Horses are four-legged mammals known as ungulates - meaning they have hooves. This group of animals also includes deer, giraffes, cattle, moose, and many other animals. Horses are related to the donkey, the ass, and the zebra. The horse's scientific name is equus ferus caballus.

People have always had a special relationship with horses. Humans have utilized horses for transportation, work, sports, warfare, companionship, and more. Let's learn more about them.

Horse Breeds

Black Friesian Horse

There is only one species of domestic horse, but around 400 different breeds all over the world. Various breeds have different skills and perform different jobs. Oklahoma State University has a list of horse breeds that you can click on to learn more about each one.

Horses can be found in a wide range of sizes, colors, and distinctive looks. Some breeds of horses are much bigger than others. Their height is usually measured at the highest point of the withers, where the neck meets the back, and is stated in units of hands and inches. One hand is equal to 4 inches. So a horse that is "15.4 h" is 15 hands plus 4 inches, for a total of 64 inches in height. Depending on the breed, horses can weigh between 800 - 2,000 lbs.

Shetland Pony grazing on a green meadow

Small horses are known as ponies, a breed of horse which gets no larger than about four feet tall. They have a long mane of hair around their heads, short legs, and long tails. On the other side of the scale, draft horses can be up to six feet in height. Clydesdales are huge horses with broad chests and hair that grows over the hooves.

A Horse's Body

Horse hoof

Horse hooves are the remains of toes that once existed in the ancient horse. The bones just above the hoof show evidence of those former toes. Ancient horses may have had two or three toes, but today's horses no longer exhibit any toes. The hooves are made of keratin, the same material as your fingernails. A horse's hooves become worn down and grow throughout its life. To protect the hooves, some horses have their hooves trimmed or metal horseshoes placed on their feet.

Horses are well-known for their manes and long tails. They are very powerful due to their strong muscles and leg structure. Below is a diagram of the parts of a horse. Learn more about a horse's anatomy.

Diagram of the parts of a horse

Horses are herbivores, which means they eat plants, mostly grasses and hay. All horses are grazers. They drink up to 10 gallons of water a day.

Horse foal suckling from mare

A baby horse is called a foal. Foals drink milk from their mothers. A single foal is usually born to its mother, although rare twin births have happened. The foal is able to stand, walk, make noise, eat, and run within hours of being born. A young male up to four years of age is called a colt, and a young female is called a filly. Adult females are mares and adult males are stallions.

Horse ears

Horses have highly developed senses. A horse has tall ears which helps it to have excellent hearing. Horses will move their ears forwards and backwards to aid their ability to take in sound. A horse's sense of smell is much better than a human's. A mother horse can identify her foal by its smell. They also have a great sense of balance. Horses can see almost 360 degrees around their heads because their eyes are on the sides of their heads. Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal.

Horses groom each other

Horses groom each other with their teeth and enjoy having their skin scratched. Owners of horses will brush the animal's back to mimic this behavior and to show affection. Horses communicate with each other through whinnying, snorting, and neighing, and through facial expressions -- mainly their eyes, nostrils, and ears. When a horse flares its nostrils and moves its ears tightly back, it could mean that they are feeling angry or aggressive.

A Horse History

herd of horses

Horses were originally wild animals that grazed for food and traveled together in herds. It is believed that the earliest horses first existed in North America. Early horses were found in all sizes - some the size of dogs. They had a variety of diets, coloring, and habitats. Some horses had three or four toes.

North American horses mysteriously disappeared about 10,000 years ago. Early horses found ways to travel to other continents by migrating across land bridges and spreading across the globe. Australia had no horses until they were brought there by settlers in 1788. Antarctica is the only continent which has no evidence of the existence of horses.

Horse man walking with his horse

Humans first domesticated (tamed) horses about 6,000 years ago in central Asia. Horses are very strong, muscular animals, which makes them a useful tool in human societies in Europe and Asia. At first, people used horses for meat and milk much like the way we use cows. Then, horses were used for travel, to do heavy hauling, and to pull carts and plows. Horses became important in fighting battles and for hunting.

Medium group of white horses running in the ocean

In the early 1500s, Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer, came to the American continent to search for gold and a route to China. He brought Spanish horses for his men to ride. Some of these horses were lost or wandered away. They began to live wild in the open lands of America. Today, herds of free-roaming North American mustangs are the descendants of horses brought by Europeans hundreds of years ago. Although groups of feral horses can be found in many places around the world, the only species of wild horse never to have been domesticated is the Przewalski's horse in Mongolia.

You may have seen movies of horses pulling the settlers' Conestoga wagons along the Oregon Trail, but such pictures are not accurate. Horses cannot survive well on the wild grasses that grow on the prairies. Oxen were the preferred animal for the pioneers' trip west. Read more about animals used on the westward trek at Oregon Trail 101.

Idaho's Hagerman Horse

Photo of the Hagerman Horse
Courtesy of National Park Service

In 1928, the discovery of more than 200 fossils on an Idaho ranch helped scientists identify the existence of a long-extinct animal. Researchers called it the Hagerman Horse for the nearby town of Hagerman. It was one of the early horse breeds in North America before they all disappeared, although it was most closely related to the zebra. Learn more about these horses from long ago at the National Park Service.

The Horse Today

Herd of amazing horses on the farm

Most horses in the world today are domesticated and live with humans. However, nearly all of the continents have groups of wild horses living somewhere in their unpopulated lands. Wild horses around the world tend to live in herds of 3-20 animals. The herd usually consists of one lead male (stallion), several females (mares) and their offspring (foals.) The lead stallion protects the herd from predators. One female horse is dominant over the remainder of the herd, deciding where the herd should go to find food and keeping the remaining members under control. When young males become colts, at about two years of age, they leave the group to roam until they gather their own band of females. In the United States, wild horses are found in western states such as Nevada and Idaho and on some islands off the Atlantic coast. Learn more about America's wild horses.

Horses living in domesticated situations do not exhibit herd behavior because they are often separated or live in individual fenced areas. However, even domesticated horses are social animals who like to be with other horses and can get lonely if they are isolated. Most domesticated horses in the world today are used to ride and to do farm or ranch work. Some horses are treated similarly to pets, kept for their companionship and entertainment value.

Police officer riding a horse in a park on a sunny day with a blurry background
Horse race training

Horses are often used in police work, especially for managing crowds at large events. Horses may be used in search and rescue services. There are some remote places that are best accessed on horseback. Some people use horses to travel into the wilderness and to carry packs. Horses are often used in therapy for people with disabilities. Some horses are bred for racing, and others are trained to compete in rodeos or horse shows. Still others are trained for dancing or acrobatics. The famous Lipizzan Stallions are known for their ability to perform and to entertain. They are a breed of horse from Europe celebrated for their white coat and their ability to jump and dance. In many places, horses are used in fancy ceremonies or to re-enact events from the past.

Fun Horse Facts

Horse with dark coat neighs and shows his teeth, sticking head out of window in stall in stable
  • Male horses have more teeth than female horses.
  • Horses only sleep about 3 hours a day.
  • Horses can sleep standing up as well as laying down.
  • A horse's average life span is 20-25 years.
  • The oldest known horse was Old Billy of England, who lived to be 62 years old and died in 1822.
  • Horses have 205 bones in their body.
  • Horses cannot burp, vomit, or breathe through their mouths.
  • Horses can gallop at about 27 miles per hour (44 kilometers per hour). The fastest horse sprint ever recorded is 55 mph (88 kph).
  • Some horses can grow mustaches!

Top 10 Questions

April 2016

Thanks to Thanks to Myron Amsden, president, Idaho Quarter Horse Association; and Dr. Madison Seamans, equine veterinarian, for their answers. for the answers.

  1. Why do horses stand up while sleeping?

    Horses have a stay apparatus that's built into their system. They kind of lock their legs so they don't fall over. It's genetic in them because they need to be ready for flight from predators. So they stay standing when they sleep. That way they don't have to get up and go if they need to. They are already standing and can go if needed. Horses stand up when sleeping because they can. (From Kaya at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)

  2. How tall is the tallest horse in the world?

    The tallest horse in the world is a Clydesdale. He is in Minnesota and is 84 inches at the shoulder. His name is Big John. (From Landon at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

  3. How many breeds of horses are there?

    There are about 200 recognized breeds of horses. There are some subcategories of those breeds, but basically 200 throughout the world. (From Avery at Liberty Elementary School in Boise)

  4. What makes horses become feral?

    A feral horse is a wild horse. If the horses have been uncared for and left in a wild range type setting, they become feral within a couple of generations. They learn how to fend for themselves, and they look at man as a predator and not as a partner. Undoing some of that learned behavior is best left to skilled professionals. (From Skylah at Sagle Elementary School in Sagle)

  5. Is there an extinct breed of horse?

    If we were to go back and look at DNA, the genetic signature that all animals leave, we would not be able to determine a breed of horse. We could tell that it was a horse from the DNA, but we could not tell what breed of horse. Therefore, it is impossible to tell if there is an extinct breed of horse. (From Madison at Sagle Elementary School in Sagle)

  6. Who picked the Appaloosa horse for our state horse and why?

    Back in the '70s, Representative Tom Trail put together a program. He had kids throughout the state write in and choose the Appaloosa horse as the state horse. Governor Andrus then signed the proclamation, making the Appaloosa the state horse. (From Emma at Kamiah Elementary School in Kamiah)

  7. How much do horses weigh?

    The average horse, a horse you would see in someone's backyard, weighs about 1,000 pounds. The Shetland, or the miniature horse, weighs under 100 pounds. The big Clydesdales can weigh anywhere from 1,800 to 2,400 pounds. So there is a wide variation of weight between the different breeds of horses. (From Tana at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)

  8. How long is a horse's gestation period?

    The gestation of a horse, the time from conception to the time that the foal comes out of its mom to say hello, is about 345 days. (From Lucy at Liberty Elementary School in Boise)

  9. Why do horses have manes?

    A horse has a lot of sweat glands in its neck. The mane wicks away some of the sweat, helping to keep the horse a little bit cooler. Manes also add to the beauty of a horse whether we brush it out full or braid it. (From Evan at Liberty Elementary School in Boise)

  10. Why do horses kick?

    Horses kick because they get startled. They also kick because they want something out of their space. They want to get horses, or even humans, away from them. Mainly they kick because they are startled. (From CJ at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)