General Description

A mare gives birth about 11 months after mating. The newborn foal can stand and walk almost immediately. Most horses reach the peak of their speed and strength at four or five years and are considered “of age” (mature) at about five years. The average life span is 20 to 30 years; the longest recorded is more than 60 years.

How Can You Help a Horse Care for Its Young?

It is important to provide the mare with a clean area to give birth and to be with her newborn. Infection is the biggest risk to a newborn foal, and many infections can be avoided by keeping the birthing area clean and disinfected.

A mare can often give birth to and care for a newborn foal without much help from humans. But, if needed, the foal can be rubbed briskly with clean straw or a towel, if the mare permits it. Make sure the foal nurses within the first two to three hours of its life. If the foal is weak and unable to stand, it may need help. Have both mare and foal examined by a veterinarian immediately after the foal’s birth. Then, carefully monitor the newborn foal for the first few days of its life. A healthy foal should become stronger and more active during this time. Increased time spent lying down or sleepiness may be signs of serious trouble in a foal—call a vet.

Body
Size

A horse's height is measured from the ground to the top of the withers. The height is expressed in hands (units of four inches [about 10 cm]). Fractions of hands are expressed in inches preceded by a hyphen. For example, a horse 58 inches (1.47 m) high is said to be 14–2 hands high (14 hands plus 2 inches).

Height and weight at maturity vary with the breed and type of horse. Within a particular breed, stallions are slightly larger than mares. Shetland ponies, smallest of the pony breeds, are commonly only 10 hands high and weigh 300 to 400 pounds (135 to 180 kg). Shires, largest of the work horse breeds, are 16 to 17–2 hands high and often weigh more than 2,000 pounds (900 kg).

How Do Horses Measure Up?

Horses vary greatly in size.

The smallest breed of horse is the Falabella. Falabellas were originally bred in Argentina and are kept as pets. Falabellas measure around 30 inches (76 centimeters) high at the withers and may weigh as little as 70 pounds (32 kilograms).

When fully grown, ponies are less than 58 inches (147 centimeters) high at the withers. Most ponies weigh less than 800 pounds (360 kilograms).

The largest horse breed was developed in England. The shire draft horse can be more than 68 inches (173 centimeters) high at the withers and can weigh 2,000 pounds (910 kilograms) or more. Shires are among the strongest horses.

Most Arabians weigh somewhere between 850 and 1,000 pounds (between 390 and 450 kilograms) and are around 14 to 15 hands (56 to 60 inches, or 142 to 152 centimeters) high.

Hair

The horse's coat is short except for long hair called feather on the legs of some breeds. Horses kept outdoors or left unblanketed grow thick winter coats that are shed in spring. The long, coarse mane and tail are sometimes cut, clipped off, or thinned.

Legs

Horses have long legs with strong muscles and tendons. The forelegs carry 60 to 65 per cent of the body weight and absorb jolts, while the hind legs provide thrust. The hoof corresponds to the nail of a human's middle toe or finger; side toes have disappeared as such through millions of years of evolution. Members of the horse family are the only animals that step on only one toe of each foot.

A horse's hoofA horse's hoof corresponds to the nail of a human's middle toe or finger.

Why Can a Horse Run So Fast?

A horse is a beautiful and majestic animal that is well adapted for running. A horse has large muscles in the upper part of its legs that provide speed. Its long, thin legs give the horse a long stride.

A horse’s feet are ideal for running. Each foot is a single, very strong toe. Only the tip of the toe, protected by the strong, curved hoof, touches the ground. The animal that was the ancestor of the horse had two additional toes. Those additional toes changed to bony strips that run from the top to midway down the cannon bone in the leg of a modern horse.

The fastest types of horses are quarter horses and thoroughbreds. The quarter horse can run short distances faster than any other horse. It can run a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) in less than 21 seconds. The thoroughbred is faster at long distances. It can run a mile (1.6 kilometer) in 1 minute 33 seconds. By comparison, the fastest a human has ever run a mile in is 3 minutes, 43 seconds.

Head

The horse is well adapted for eating grasses and grain, as its long neck and head can easily be lowered for grazing. The incisors, or cutting teeth, are long and sharp for clipping tough grasses. The molars (grinding teeth) are especially strong and have high crowns. A horse's age can be roughly estimated by the number and condition of its teeth. At the age of five years, a horse has a full set of permanent teeth. A mare usually has 36 teeth; a stallion or gelding, 40.

A horse has keen sight, hearing, and sense of smell. Its eyes, set on the side of the head, move independently of each other and it can see forward with one eye and backward with the other. The horse has a well-developed brain and is capable of complex motor coordination. Its intelligence, however, is not especially high for a mammal.

A horseA horse has keen sight, hearing, and sense of smell.

What Are a Horse’s “Blind Spots”?

A horse can see about 350 degrees—nearly a complete circle—around from its nose because its eyes are positioned on the sides of its head. By comparison, dogs can see only about 240 degrees around, and cats have only a 200-degree field of view. Nonetheless, a horse has some “blind spots,” or areas that it cannot see. These areas include:

The area directly in front of its forehead, extending for about 4 feet (1.2 meters). Never approach a horse directly from the front—if you do so, it can’t see you until you are about 6 inches (15 centimeters) from its face. The area directly under its head on the ground and near its front legs. A horse can’t see its own knees and chest. The area of its back directly behind its head. The area directly behind its tail. This is the most important blind spot to be aware of; if a horse becomes frightened, it could kick and hurt you. Be careful and alert when you walk behind a horse.

What Is Horse Sense?

Horse sense is a term people use to mean “common sense.” It may be that some horses have horse sense, but all horses have physical senses that they use to tell what is happening in their world.

One kind of sense a horse uses is its vision. A horse’s eyes are oval and are set on the sides of its head. The two eyes can be moved independently, each in a half circle. A horse, therefore, can look forward with one eye and backward with the other.

Horses have a well-developed sense of smell. Their nostrils are very large and can pick up scents from far away. Strong wind and heavy rain interfere with their sense of smell and may cause horses to become nervous. A horse uses its sense of smell, along with its vision, to identify people and other horses. A mare identifies her foal by its smell. The foal can also recognize the scent of its mother.

Horses have keen hearing. They have short, pointed ears that they can move around to pick up sounds from almost any direction. Horses can detect sounds above and below the range of sounds that humans can hear.