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What Are the Three Main Types of Horses?

By Leigh Mercer
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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In general horses are divided into three main types, namely heavy horses, light horses, and ponies. These distinctions are made primarily on size and weight, though they sometimes take bone structure and overall stockiness into account, too. Most of the time specific breeds are classified as one of these types irrespective of whether all members actually fit the specifications. Typing is usually more of a generalized mode of classification and lacks a lot of the precision of something like breed distinctions. There are many different horse breeds, and what it takes to fall into a breed category is usually a lot more stringent, involving things like lineage and coloring. Types tend to focus on proportions, size, and build.

Distinguishing Breed and Type

Horses are usually distinguished primarily by their breed. There are hundreds of known breeds, and a number of what’s known as “archaic” breeds, too — archaic breeds either don’t exist anymore or have been folded into other more modern classifications. Bred distinctions are usually certified by official registering agencies, and typically have international consistency.

A horse’s breed tends to be most useful when it comes to the horse’s genetic makeup, and usually says more about its familial lineage and coloring characteristics than anything else. Typing, on the other hand, is more commonly used to make generalizations about a horse’s capabilities. Certain types are better at performing certain work than others, for instance, and also may be more likely to suffer from certain injuries or illnesses.

Heavy Horse Basics

The heavy horse looks just as the name implies — heavy. The body is strong with a broad back and rounded withers, which is the spot between the horse's shoulder blades. On a heavy horse, the legs are short and thick to aid them in pulling carts or plowing fields. Heavy horses are specifically made for heavy labor like farming. These types of horses also move with short steps and choppy movements to give them ultimate traction. Heavy horses can also be shown at fairs and horse shows. Some different breeds of heavy horses include the Clydesdale and the American Cream Draft horse.

Light Horses

Light horses are usually used for riding purposes. They are distinguished by more linear, angular bodies and typically longer legs; saddles can easily be fitted over the horse’s back, allowing for a comfortable ride. Light horses have longer torsos than draft horses, and hardly bend their knees at all when they move. They are often considered to be somewhat dainty or dignified.

In most cases these horses have both true and false ribs, which aid in saddle placement, among other things. The true ribs are usually thought to be the first eight ribs of the horse's ribcage, which are flat so that the saddles lie just behind the trapezius muscle. The last ten so-called “false” ribs are rounded rather than flat. Some different breeds of light horses are quarter horses, thoroughbreds and miniature horses, which are not to be confused with the third type of horse, ponies.

Ponies

Ponies are the last of the three main types of horses. They are naturally small in stature and as such are often confused with miniature horses, which normally fall under the “heavy” distinction based on their stocky build, or baby horses, with are called foals. Ponies are unique in many important ways. They have naturally thicker manes, tails, and coats, for instance; they also have smaller heads and thicker necks than any other type of horse. They often appear somewhat shrunken even when grown to full size, and are popular options for child riders.

Ponies tend to be intelligent, friendly creatures with stubborn habits. Adults can usually ride ponies, although if a pony is trained by a beginner or a child it may exhibit spoiled behavior. One breed of pony that many people may recognize is the Shetland pony.

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Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On May 14, 2014

My cousin used to have a chestnut quarter horse. I'm assuming that's what she was. She wasn't a Thoroughbred -- just a very nice saddlebred horse. Her name was Princess and I don't think anything could scare that horse. Nothing bothered her. She is one of the calmest horses I've ever met -- a real sweetheart.

I like horses, although I've never learned to ride. They're beautiful, intelligent animals.

By Grivusangel — On May 13, 2014

We took a wagon ride as part of a tour of a historical home, and the horses pulling the wagon were percherons. They were mares, and not quite as large as most percherons. They were very, very sweet horses and very pleased to be around people.

Draft horses are huge, but there's something very noble and kind about them. I'm told that, by and large, they are indeed, "gentle giants."

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