Post Olympics: horse jargon demystified for idiot journalists

Some proper hard facts about equestrian terminology

Photo of Suze and “Merrylegs”
by Aaron Wood

As most journalists – especially of the “tabloid” variety – don’t know one end of a horse from the other, here’s a brief guide to the main terms they should be using when writing about horses and riders in the media … as opposed to the vomit-inducing clichés they normally write.

Last year I bristled when reading the UK’s Daily Mail (that’ll teach me) to see how they described Zara Phillips’/Tindall’s recent success at a 3-day event. “Zara wins first prize” it gurgled. Surely if you win, you’ve come first? Tautology rules. And it gets far worse. In what meagre coverage there was in the media of the equestrian sports this year during the UK’s Olympic Games and Paralympics, the journos once again made us horsey types (and that’s everything from a gold medallist to a casual weekend trekker) cringe with their clichéd crap. OK, the public don’t need to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock … but let’s at least get the basics right…

Colt: a colt is not just any young or juvenile horse or pony – it’s the boy version. Girlie versions are called fillies. Young horses of either gender are foals, yearlings, two-year-olds, etc.

Stallion: a.k.a “fiery stallion,” “prancing stallion,” etc. A stallion is not a romantic equid on which a handsome knight gallops off with a beautiful princess on board. Not unless he’s got a cast-iron life insurance policy and a death wish. Stallions are male horses who have not had their b*lls chopped off and usually are more macho and testosterone-fired than body-builders on illegal steroids. Although some are quite sweet-natured, most kick, bite, fight with other male horses given the chance and will jump over an 18-wheeler truck to get at a mare in season. Hence most stallions used for equestrian competitions are “gelded.”

Gelding: see above. A gelding is a male horse with its b*lls cut off. An adult  female horse is a mare. When in doubt, don’t guess – look between its hind legs. No willy – it’s a mare. If you see a willy but no b*lls, it’s a gelding. If you see a willy and b*lls it’s a stallion, so get the hell out of there fast.

A typical, grumpy-looking pony

Pony: a pony is a small version of a horse. It is not a baby or juvenile horse; many ponies live to be 30 or even 40 years old. And they don’t grow any bigger. (Baby horses are called foals, see above.) Ponies, especially the very small ones, can be grumpy little sh*ts. These may look cuddly but have teeth and jaws like small alligators.

Mount, steed, charger, etc.: ZZZZzzzzzzz….who do you think you are, journo – Jane Austen? These days a horse is a horse, not something you cast in bronze standing on one leg with a dead general sitting on it.

Eventing: what Zara Phillips (Queen’s grand-daughter) does, which is why you write about it, so for Heaven’s sake get it right. It consists of 3 disciplines. Dressage is what most event riders hate because they find it boring, with the horse just going around in circles on the flat. What annoys them even more is that it’s very difficult to get right. Cross-country is what they all get off on because it’s thrilling and dangerous with the horse galloping over a lengthy course of huge, awkward fences (NOT jumps, please) that, unlike showjumping fences, do not fall to pieces if you breathe on them. Lastly there’s showjumping which is done at a somewhat more dignified pace (called canter) over a short course of collapsible fences. Sounds easy, but they’re big, sometimes wide too, placed at tricky angles and if your horse touches them they fall over, so incurring penalties.

When a rider gets “thrown” from his/her horse: I know it sounds more captivating to write about a poor innocent rider being cruelly ejected from the saddle by the vicious steed, but 99 percent of the time the rider doesn’t get thrown – s/he falls off. And it’s normally not the horses’ fault, so stop blaming them, OK? FYI, the correct terminology is to refer to it as “a fall.”

Reining in your horse: another cliché you love to inflict on the horse world. The reality is that if you yank the reins hard on a real horse you’ll hurt its mouth and spook it, so you might even get “thrown.” Stop trying to use horse jargon unless you really understand it. Say “slowing down,” or “stopping” to be on the safe side. NB: there is, in fairness, a Western equestrian discipline called “reining,” but this does not involving yanking horses in the mouth. On the contrary … if you look at the video below you will see one of the most amazing demonstrations of Western reining I have ever seen; it made me cry for its perfection and pathos. And not a rein, bridle, or saddle in sight.

Running: horses don’t run. The standard paces are walk, trot, canter and gallop (some American breeds do artificial paces as well, but let’s not go there now.) Think about it; how would you run if you had four legs?

I could go on for pages and pages, but that’ll do for now. Happy horsifying…

You won’t be surprised to learn that I love horses and have written two jokebooks about them. These make cute, low-cost gifts and you may like to check them out: The Horse Lover’s Joke Book, and The Pony Lover’s Joke Book







  1. PS … if you want to read a fresh example of what I was ranting about here, have a look at this: ….!!


  2. Nice one Suze!

    Only spotted one piece of journo: “romantic equid”, or was that a typo?

    Cross-country (on which I provide commentaries over the PA system) aren’t that lengthy these days, they may be as short as 2 miles with 20 fences (of which at least 3 are hidden from the commentator).

    A useful summary for riders is “ask a mare, tell a gelding, and negotiate with a stallion”

    • Thanks for dropping by Roy! Actually, “equid” isn’t a typo – according to one definition, “any of various hoofed mammals of the family Equidae, which includes horses, donkeys, and zebras. Equids have muscular bodies with long, slender legs adapted for running and a single hoofed digit at the end of each limb.” But why that one was romantic I don’t know….!! And good luck with commentating on cross-country … I had to commentate for a BRC Area 1-day event once and by the end of it was ready to be sectioned. Show jumping is much easier!


  1. […] to say this is not the first time I have ranted on here about the most stupid ways in which journalists mislead and belittle those of us in the horsey […]