Due to centuries of selective human breeding, many types of horses (Equus ferus caballus) have adapted to different environments. Humans have even developed a unique measurement system for horses called “hands,” which translates to four-inch increments.
From the sturdy draft horses of Northern Europe to the agile Arabian hot-bloods, each type of horse has a unique behavior, diet, and habitat. Read on and deepen your appreciation for these remarkable creatures. Let us begin our adventure!
The horse world is beautifully diverse. They're split into several groups -
Read on as we explore some of the types within these groups.
The Arabian Horse is one of the world’s oldest equine breeds and is native to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
Moreover, the Bedouin tribes became the first horse whisperers, valuing their hardiness, strength, and stamina.
People have also bred Arabians with carriage horses, which became war horses used since the Middle Ages.
Additionally, the Arabian Horse has a head shape known as the 'dished face' and large, expressive eyes. They have broad nostrils and a soft muzzle. They also hold their tail high.
Measuring approximately 14.1 to 15.1 hands high, the Arabian Horse excels in endurance riding, dressage, show-jumping, and Western-style events.
Thoroughbred horses, with a diverse lineage, originated in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. They come from British and Middle Eastern horse lines, featuring athleticism and a multicultural heritage.
Standing at 15.2 to 17 hands high, thoroughbred horses have elongated necks, compact backs, lean bodies, and muscular hindquarters. Their coats range from pearly white to jet black, with chestnut and gray as popular shades.
Thoroughbred horses are skilled racehorses that excel in show jumping, dressage, and polo—horse enthusiasts like their adaptability and versatility, particularly their ability to perform various activities.
The Quarter Horse is a longstanding symbol of America's Wild West. Its name comes from its exceptional speed over a quarter-mile, even faster than the fastest Thoroughbreds2.
Moreover, the Quarter Horse has a muscular physique with strong hindquarters. Its variety of colors includes sorrel and bay.
Originally bred on cattle ranches in the West, this breed has developed a calm temperament and high intelligence, making it easy to train and ideal for various settings. The Quarter Horse can thrive on tranquil trail rides and is perfect for pleasure riding in bustling families.
Additionally, they have a solid intuition–“cow sense"--that goes back to their origins as working ranch horses. This intuition enables them to anticipate and respond to cattle movements accurately. Moreover, this “cow sense” has made them reliable ranch animals despite increasing reliance on machines.
The Paint Horse blends Western stock horse and spotted horse genes with ancestry from Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse lineages. This genetic combination gives the Paint Horse strength, agility, and the ability to maneuver western riding and leisurely trails.
Each Paint Horse has a distinctive pattern, typically categorized into two types: tobiano and overo.
For example, Tobiano Paints has white hair extending over the back between the horse's withers and tail, with a sharper and more uniform color.
In contrast, Overo Paints have scattered and irregular markings, their color usually concentrated on the sides and rarely extending to the back.
Moreover, Paint Horses are loyal, kind, and intelligent, which makes them popular among families worldwide.
Descending from wild horses, the Appaloosa horse breed, native to America, features distinctive coat patterns like dapples, spots, and stripes, categorized as blanket, leopard, snowflake, and marble.
Historically, the Appaloosa horse goes back to the Nez Perce people, the indigenous inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. The name 'Appaloosa' came from the Palouse River, a significant geographical feature in Nez Perce territory.
These versatile light horses stand 14.2 to 15.2 hands high or around 57 to 61 inches tall. They are also strong and agile, ideal for endurance racing or Western riding events.
Moreover, Appaloosa horses are friendly, calm, and obedient. They excel in youth programs to advanced riding disciplines due to their physical and mental endurance.
The Morgan Horse has deep roots in American history and is known for its agility and compact physique. Standing between 14.1 and 15.2 hands, this breed is strong, fast, and enduring.
A man named Justin Morgan owned a horse named “Figure,” whose impressive traits helped shape the Morgan breed we know today.
Horse breeders have used the Morgan Horse in coaching and harness racing for centuries, paying tribute to its origins. It has also become a beloved riding horse.
The Morgan Horse has large, expressive, straight, or slightly convex eyes. Its high, defined withers give it an alert appearance. Moreover, the breed is calm and friendly, a reliable partner for beginner riders and children.
Morgan Horses are highly intelligent and can perform different riding styles, including English and Western. They excel in dressage, show jumping, and endurance riding disciplines.
Furthermore, the breed has significantly influenced other American horse breeds, such as the American Quarter Horse and Tennessee Walking Horse.
The Tennessee Walking Horse, or "Walker," stands between 15 and 17 hands high. It has a streamlined, muscular body.
Moreover, it performs a unique “running walk,” a four-beat rhythm revealing its coordination, power, and fluidity. This gait also gives riders an exceptionally smooth ride, making it a popular choice among enthusiasts.
The Tennessee Walking Horse started as a workhorse on farms and plantations in the American South. They were highly versatile animals that rode across vast fields, pulled heavy loads, and sprinted in races.
Additionally, Tennessee Walkers are also caring and intelligent. Their calmness soothes those around them, and their eagerness to please makes them ideal for therapeutic riding programs.
However, the breed has stirred controversy. For example, an issue that has often marred the reputation of the show circuit is the cruel practice called "soring,” intended to improve the horse’s natural gait for competitions.
People have widely criticized the practice and led the equestrian community to implement safeguards for the horse.
The Miniature Horse is a small and muscular breed that measures 34-38 inches at the shoulders.
In the 19th century, people bred Miniature Horses to work in coal mines due to their size and strength. For example, they can pull loads that are nearly twice their weight. Nowadays, these horses more commonly perform in agility classes, jumping, driving, and obstacle courses.
Moreover, the Miniature Horse is gentle and friendly.. Their intelligence and trainability make them ideal for therapy and animal assistance roles.
Additionally, these horses can live up to 30 to 40 years. Their diet and care requirements are relatively modest compared to larger horses. However, they avoid overfeeding them, for they are prone to obesity.
Warmblood Horses are middle-weight horses from Europe known for their powerful yet graceful appearance. They stand between 15.2 and 17.2 hands high; they have a deep chest, a strong back, and powerful hindquarters.
Moreover, warmbloods excel in dressage, jumping, and eventing due to their high stamina and willingness to work. They can jump high and have a powerful trot and canter.
Warmbloods have expressive heads with large and gentle eyes. These friendly animals are also ideal companions for novice and experienced riders.
The Andalusian horse originates from the Iberian Peninsula–particularly Andalusia, Spain–and its rich heritage spans millennia. This robust and elegant breed stands from 15.2 to 16.2 hands high, and they have broad, leathery heads with expressive almond eyes.
Andalusian horses are notably agile and suitable for dressage and other equestrian events1. Moreover, they have served as warhorses due to their skill and bravery, though they are generally calm and docile.
Additionally, Andalusians eat grass, hay, grains, and occasional fruits and vegetables. However, breeders must be cautious of certain disorders peculiar to the breed, such as Lethal White Syndrome.
The Hanoverian Horse originates from the former Kingdom of Hanover in Germany and is used for pulling carriages and military purposes. Today, the agile and athletic Hanoverian horse excels in dressage, show jumping, and eventing.
Both beginners and experts hold the Hanoverian Horse in high regard. These horses stand at a height of 15.3 to 17.2 hands tall with well-proportioned bodies. Moreover, their strong and confident presence adds to their optimal competition performance.
Moreover, these patient and intelligent horses have powerful, elastic gaits that mesmerize spectators, especially when they do an extended trot.
The Friesian Horse comes from Friesland in the Netherlands. They have glossy black coats, thick manes and tails, and proud posture. Historically, Friesians were once war horses during the Middle Ages. Nowadays, they help with farm work and heavy-duty tasks.
Friesian horses can do an impressive high-stepping trot and execute complex dressage movements. Despite their heavy build, they tread lightly and move gracefully. They are a popular choice for under-saddle show classes.
Moreover, Friesians are gentle and eager to please, ideal companions for riders of all skill levels.
The Clydesdale horse comes from Scotland's Clydesdale region, known as Lanarkshire. They help with various tasks that require strength and endurance, such as transporting goods and carrying heavy coal loads.
Moreover, these draft horses stand 18 hands tall and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Clydesdales are elegant and sophisticated animals that can do a high-stepping trot.
While these horses are enormous, gentle, approachable, and friendly, they are popular in stables, pastures, and horse shows.
The Shire Horse comes from England's 'shire' counties and is one of the world’s largest horse breeds. For example, stallions typically measure between 17 to 19 hands high or 68 to 76 inches.
While Shire Horses are remarkably strong, their gentle temperament endears them to people. Moreover, these horses are resilient, and their hardy constitution helps them resist genetic diseases affecting other breeds.
The Shetland Pony thrives in the Shetland Isles. While small, they are impressively strong and can carry loads nearly twice their weight.
Moreover, the harsh climate of the Shetland Isles has led these ponies to develop a unique double-layered coat that protects them from cold weather.
Popular among pony breeds, Shetland Ponies are friendly and intelligent. Their patient and gentle nature makes them ideal first ponies for kids.
Welsh Mountain Ponies are a historic breed from the United Kingdom. Despite their small size, standing at 11 to 12.2 hands high, they are agile and sure-footed animals able to climb rocky outcrops.
Moreover, due to their friendly and gentle nature, the Welsh Mountain Pony is a famous horse breed for children’s mounts or driving ponies. Welsh mountain ponies are also intelligent animals.
Moreover, the breed's coat protects them against the harsh Welsh weather. The Welsh pony can also thrive on the vegetation on the mountainside, needing little additional feeding.
Mustangs are free-roaming horses in the American West with an important heritage. Their ancestors were the horses used by Spanish explorers, hence their strong connection to the frontier spirit.
While we might consider them wild horses, they are technically feral since they descend from formerly domesticated animals.
The Mustang breed is generally small, ranging from 13 to 15 hands high. Despite their modest looks, they are strong and brave animals.
Moreover, their compact bodies and sturdy hooves allow them to traverse rugged terrain easily. Their coats also have varied patterns created naturally by their environment.
Mustang herds involve a strict hierarchy under a dominant stallion and a lead mare; each member follows their place in the pecking order.
The Rocky Mountain Horse originated in Kentucky, not from the Rocky Mountains. It has a distinct chocolate coat with a flaxen mane and tail.
Moreover, the Rocky Mountain Horse does a “single-foot” gait, reducing the usual bobbing motion of pleasure riding horses and giving riders a comfortable experience through long trails.
The Rocky Mountain Horse is also gentle and intelligent, adaptable to various climates and terrains. Its agreeable nature also makes it ideal for novice and experienced riders.
The Mountain Pleasure Horse breed has lived in Eastern Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains for almost two centuries.
One of their defining characteristics is their fluid and consistent four-beat gait, which gives riders a comfortable experience on steep trails.
Mountain Pleasure Horses have shimmering coats that reflect sunlight. They are medium-sized horses that stand from 14.2 to 15 hands but are also strong animals.
Their broad chests and muscular necks reveal their heritage as workhorses. Additionally, their durable legs help them carry heavy loads and make them popular horse breeds for equestrians in trail riding and endurance competitions.
Viking raiders in the 9th and 10th centuries brought Icelandic Horses to Iceland, where they adapted to the frigid temperatures. They might be relatively small horses, measuring only 13 to 14 hands, but they can carry heavy loads.
Unlike typical horses that walk, trot, or gallop, Icelandic Horses can also do the tölt and the flying pace. The tölt is a smooth four-beat gait often compared to dance, while the flying speed is a rapid, two-beat gait that gives them an edge in horse racing.
The Icelandic Horse is strong and agile, with a friendly and laid-back disposition. Their nature makes them beloved breeds among horse enthusiasts worldwide.
Icelandic Horses offer a balance of courage and enthusiasm that makes them pleasant to interact with. Their characteristics remind us of Iceland's rugged beauty and Viking heritage.
There are over 350 different horse breeds worldwide.
Horses were first domesticated approximately 6,000 years ago.
The five major types are Draft, Pony, Warmblood, Coldblood, and Light Horse breed.
Horses are generally larger and faster, and ponies are smaller but robust. Meanwhile, donkeys are a different species, known for their endurance and stubbornness.
The smallest horse breed is the Falabella Horse, while the largest is the Shire Horse.
Valera, M., Molina, A., Gutiérrez, J. P., Gómez, J., & Goyache, F. (2005). Pedigree analysis in the Andalusian horse: population structure, genetic variability and influence of the Carthusian strain. Livestock Production Science, 95(1-2), 57-66.
Petersen, J. L., Mickelson, J. R., Cleary, K., & McCue, M. E. (2013). The American Quarter Horse: Population structure and relationship to the thoroughbred. Journal of Heredity, 105(2), 148–162.