What is a Horse Breed?

Horses October 10, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

Ashley Griffin, University of Kentucky

A breed is defined as a group of horses with a common origin and possessing certain distinguishable characteristics that are transmitted to the offspring, such that the offspring possess the parents' characteristics. These characteristics make the breed different from other breeds. This is called breed character, or the quality of conforming to the description of a particular breed. (Illustrated Dictionary of Equine Terms, by New Horizons Equine Education Center, 1998. Published by Alpine Publications, Lovell and Co.)

Horses are categorized by their breed type, and the following characteristics make each type unique. The most predominant breed types will be covered.

  • Miniature Horses. For horse owners who like small breeds, there is the miniature horse. These small equines range from 20 inches to 36 inches at the withers and can weight as little as 40 pounds. They were once prized by royalty and are now used in many show activities by adults and youth alike.
  • Pony Breeds. Equines that are less than 14.2 hands tall at the withers are classified as ponies. Each hand is 4 inches; a horse that is 14.2 hands is 58 inches at the withers [(4x14)+2]. These small equines are used in many of the same activities as light and sports horse breeds. They are ridden or driven by youth and adults in a variety of activities.
  • Light Horse Breeds. The horse breeds classified in this group stand 14.2 hands or taller at the withers. They weigh 900 to 1,500 pounds and are used in activities ranging from recreational or trail riding, showing, ranch work, driving, dressage, and Olympic events such as show jumping and racing.
  • Sport Horse Breeds. The warmbloods that make up the sport horse breed were developed through the selective crossing of hot-blooded Thoroughbreds and Arabian stallions to native European draft mares. This breeding produced a horse with size, substance, and good movement. Sport horses have excelled in the Olympic events of show jumping, dressage, three-day event, and combined training. They stand approximately 16 to 18 hands at the withers. Many of these horses originated in Europe.
  • Draft Horse Breeds. In contrast to pony and light horse breeds, draft horses are the gentle giants of the industry. These horses may also be characterized as a heavy horse breed that stands from 15 to more than 18 hands tall and can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. They were the workhorses used for agriculture production and hauling freight in days gone by. Today, many draft horses are used on farms and ranches across North America and in exhibition hitches in the show ring or in parades.

In General: Environmental factors and the fairly recent practice of selective breeding have greatly influenced the evolution of horse breeds. While many breeds have produced horses that excel at many activities, there are specific breeds more suited to particular activities than others.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.