Horses – introduction

Information about the physical and behavioural characteristics of horses.

Horse breeds

There are a variety of horse breeds used within Australia. The choice of breeds is generally according to the activity they are used for. They include:

  • Thoroughbred/warmblood for Olympic disciplines
  • Thoroughbred/pony/Arab for the show ring
  • Thoroughbred for racing
  • Stockhorse for farmwork/campdrafting
  • Arabian for endurance rides.

Breeds of livestock

Physical characteristics

Characteristic Details
Size Measured at the top of the withers: Ranging from 8 hands high, e.g. Shetland pony to 18.2 hands high such as Draught breeds or warmbloods: 1 hand = 10cms
Weight Varies from 200kg Shetland pony to 700kg draught breeds.
Age at adult size Varies between breeds, between 2 and 4 years.
Weight at birth 30kg to 100kg depending on breed.
Gestation period Average 336 days.
Number of offspring One. Twins are rare and survival rate is very low for both mother and offspring.
Range of breeding ages Females from 3-20 years. Progesterone treatment may be used in mares over 15 years to sustain pregnancy.
Weaning age 6-9 months.
Healthy characteristics
  • Temperature: 38.0-38.3°C. At 38.4°C you would be concerned.
  • Heart rate: 30-40/min.
  • Respiration: 10-40/min. Varies between individuals.


In the wild, horses are prey animals, so they require a large field of vision in order to see their predators early enough to outrun them. To gain this wide field of vision, the horse’s eyes are large and placed on each side of their head, giving them almost 360° field of vision. In addition, the eyes are placed high up on the head, allowing them to have the greatest field of vision when the head is down grazing.

A horse with small eyes may be more limited in its field of vision, which can cause the horse to have a greater flight response. A pig-eyed horse, with inset eyes may also exhibit the same problems with its field of vision.

A result of having the eyes set out on the side of the head is that there is a blind spot created directly in front of and behind the horse. The area in front of the horse may be a true blind spot, or an area of indistinct vision, depending on how far out the eyes are set. The blind spot area behind the horse is just slightly wider than the width of the horse’s body and goes on indefinitely if the horse stands with it head straight. It is important to understand the existence and location of these blind spots as this helps reduce accidents arising from a spooked horse. The horse can lose track of us when we cross behind it and may startle when we reappear in the other eye.

Image: Horses’ eyes are large and placed on each side of their head.


Horses have much keener hearing than humans, they use their hearing to detect noises as well as where these noises are coming from. Horses’ ears can move 180 degrees in order to face the direction of sound and determine what the noise is and isolate where a noise is coming from. This means the horse can run away from the threatening noise. Therefore, care should be taken with horses that are around loud or sudden noises.

Horses can respond to a training command given at a very low volume. It is not necessary to shout to be heard. Horses are also very sensitive to the tone of voice. It is always best to use a confident tone and avoid overly emotional tones such as shrill, high pitched screams.

Horses hearing

Behavioural characteristics

Horses are social, inquisitive animals with a strong herd instinct. They find security in familiar surrounding and can become stressed if they are moved to an unfamiliar place or become isolated. Horses like to be housed where they can touch and groom each other.

There is usually a clear hierarchy within horse herds; older mares are generally dominant over younger horses and geldings. Horses have a nervous and excitable nature and a very strong flight response. They are generally very suspicious of anything new and are easily frightened by sudden changes, loud noises and movements.

Horses confined to small yards and stables will often develop behavioural problems, known as “stereotypes”. Stereotypes have previously been termed “stable vices” and can include windsucking, weaving, crib biting, box walking, anorexia, depression and aggression due to frustration from a lack of stimulation. Due to their gregarious nature, horses should always have at least one companion that they can see from their stable, paddock or yard and should not be kept in isolation.

Image: Horse like to touch and groom each other.


Horses are gregarious animals, meaning they are social and fond of company. Prehistoric horses were characterised by quick reflexes and panic which allowed them to survive predators. They have excellent memories which allows them to learn both desirable and undesirable habits quickly.

Different breeds of horses display varying behavioural traits which often determines the role or discipline the horse is ideally suited to. Intelligent calm breeds like stockhorses are used for farm work, mustering, polocrosse and campdrafting while performance bred horses like warmbloods, sporthorses and thoroughbreds are used for olympic disciplines such as jumping, dressage and racing.

Within a school system it is common that students bring their own horses and keep them at the school to participate in a variety of equestrian pursuits. Common disciplines that students participate in include dressage, showjumping, eventing, polocrosse, sporting, campdrafting and showing.

Image: Horses have a strong flight response.
Image: Thoroughbreds are often used for showjumping.


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