Anyone who’s ever looked at a horse can tell that they are beautiful, special creatures. However, there is so much more to these animals than meets the eye.
Horses have been our dear partners for thousands of years. In the past, they carried us over long distances, pulled our goods, worked on our lands and fought alongside us in battles. Today, they help us break records, keep us fit, rehabilitate us and provide a kind of pleasure that is highly addictive.
In this article, you will discover all that’s special about horses. While our list of horse facts is far from exhaustive, it will help you will discover all that’s special about horses.
Here are 40 interesting facts about horses.
1. Horses can’t vomit or burp
While most vertebrate animals are able to vomit, horses have lost this ability over time. They have a very strong muscle ring called the cardiac sphincter at the entrance to their stomachs. This structure makes sure any food that enters the stomach cannot go back out.
What’s more, the vomiting reflex is very weak in horses, which is another reason why they can’t throw up. They are also physically unable to squeeze their stomachs with their abdominal muscles to force food back up the esophagus. The only way food is able to escape a horse’s stomach is in the event of a stomach rupture, which is usually fatal in horses.
Since they cannot expel toxins from their bodies, we have to be very careful about what we feed our horses. Make sure you’re familiar with what horses can and cannot eat.
2. There are over 600 horse breeds
Due to extensive selective breeding over the past few centuries, there are over 600 horse breeds in the world today. According to a 2017 genetic study, all modern horses descent from two ancient horses breeds: the Arabian and Turkoman horses. While the Arabian horse still exists today, the Turkoman horse that is similar in appearance to the Akhal-Teke is now extinct.
All existing horse breeds fit into these five categories: hot-blood, warmblood, cold-blood/draft, pony and miniature. Hot-blooded horses include the Arabian, Thoroughbred and Barb breeds with origins in the Middle East. In contrast, cold-blooded (heavy) horses and ponies developed in northern Europe.
A warmblood refers to any horse breed whose ancestors were crosses between hot-blooded and cold-blooded/pony type breeds. Finally, miniature horse breeds are scaled-down versions of their big cousins with a specified maximum height.
Also take our horse breeds quiz to test your knowledge!
3. The tallest horse ever measured was 21.25 hands (2.20m)
A Shire horse called Sampson, born in 1846 Bedfordshire, England, stood at an impressive 21.25 hands. In other words, he was over seven feet tall at the withers, which hasn’t been surpassed ever since. He also weighed a jaw-dropping 3,360 pounds (1,524 kg)!
Until recently, the tallest living horse was a Belgian Draft gelding called Big Jake, who stood at 20.2 hh (210.19 cm). He lived at Smokey Hollow Farm in Wisconsin, USA with Jerry Gilbert and his family. The big chestnut passed away in June 2021, at 20 years of age.
Also, read our article on the largest horse breeds in the world.
4. The oldest horse ever was 62 years old
Old Billy (1760-1822) holds the record of the oldest horse in history. He was an 18th-century barge horse from Woolston, Lancashire, England. His exact breed is not known, although he was most likely a Shire-type horse with a brown coat and a white blaze.
At the time of his death, Old Billy was approximately 165 years old in human years! Surprisingly, he had a very active life and continued working until his late senior years.
The portrait above is the work of W. Taylor, who wanted to immortalize the famous horse. His head has also been preserved and is currently on display at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and Bedford Museums.
5. The average horse lifespan is 25 – 30 years
As equine care and veterinary medicine improve, domestic horses are living longer and healthier lives. Although genetics, nutrition and environmental factors still limit the maximum age a horse can reach.
In general, ponies tend to live longer than horses and many of them will live beyond 40. Some horse breeds also have a higher than average life expectancy, such as the Haflinger, Appaloosa, Icelandic Horse, Quarter Horse and Arabian breeds.
Interestingly, there isn’t one multiplier that tells us how old a horse is in human years. This is because horses develop at a much faster rate up to 3 years of age and then slow down as they get older. To illustrate, a 3-year-old horse is 18 in human years, while a 20-year-old is 60.5 and a 40-year-old horse is 110.5 in human years. (Source: Fox Run Equine Center)
6. Horses only have one less bone than humans
With 205 bones in their skeleton, horses only have one less bone than we do (206). However, this isn’t true for all horse breeds. Arabian horses have one less pair of ribs, lumbar and tail vertebrae, meaning they only have 201 bones.
7. Horses have an almost 360 degree visual range
Because of the position of their eyes, horses can see roughly 350 degrees around themselves. This is nearly four times our visual range!
However, horses see the world very differently to us. They can only see 55 to 65 degrees with both eyes, the rest of their vision (190-230 degrees) is monocular. This means that their depth perception and ability to see details are quite poor.
On the other hand, horses are exceptionally good at detecting motion, which is how they survived for millions of years. As soon as a predator came into their visual range, they were able to run instantly. But because they can’t make out moving shapes in their peripheral vision clearly, horses will spook at just about any sudden movement.
8. Horses were first domesticated around 6,000 years ago
Horses were actually domesticated quite late compared to other animals like the dog (15,000 Years Before Present). According to a 2012 genetic study, the event happened at various locations across the western Eurasian Steppes circa 6,000 years ago. Today, we know these territories as southwest Russia, the lowlands of Ukraine and west Kazakhstan.
The study of mitochondrial DNA in horses also revealed that they were domesticated multiple times at different locations. What’s more, Dr. Vera Warmuth from the Department of Zoology at Cambridge told the BBC that wild mares were likely used to increase the numbers of already domesticated horses.
9. Horses can sleep both lying down and standing up
Horses have a unique survival adaptation called the stay apparatus that allows them to completely relax and sleep standing up. It’s comprised of a series of tendons and ligaments that connect the stifle to the hock and lock them in place. This is the reason why horses can’t move their knees separately from their hocks.
The point of this special ability is to enable horses to run at the first sign of danger. However, they still need to lie down for short periods of time to achieve deep (RAM) sleep and complete their sleep cycle. As a matter of fact, horses can’t lie down for too long as that would put undue strain on their bones and internal organs (Source: Science Kids).
Also, see our guide on how horses sleep for more information.
10. The fastest horse sprint speed ever recorded is 55 MPH (88.5 KPH)
This incredible speed was achieved in 2005 by a racing Quarter Horse called A Long Goodbye on a quarter-mile distance (0.40 km). The horse completed the race in exactly 20.686 seconds.
In contrast, the average Thoroughbred racehorse can maintain a speed of 40 to 44 mph (64 to 70 km/h) on a short distance. Meanwhile, most horses can achieve a speed of 20 to 30 mph (32 – 48.5 km/h) during canter with a rider on their back.
11. There are around 60 million horses in the world today
Horses can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Out of all countries, the United States has the most horses in the world. According to the 2020 report of The Food and Drug Administration, the estimated horse population in the United States is around 3.8 million. This is a sharp decline from the 2008 figures of 9.2 million.
After the USA, Mexico and China are next on the list of the most horses owned per country. While we couldn’t find up-to-date figures for Mexico, China had 3.47 million horses in 2018.
12. There are no true wild horses left in the world
Until recently, the Przewalski’s horse was thought to be the only “true” wild horse breed. Most horses considered to be wild today, such as the American Mustangs or the Australian Brumbies, are actually descendants of domestic horses. The correct term to describe these horses is “feral”, as true wild horses have never been domesticated.
As a 2018 study concluded, Przewalski’s horses are also mere descents of the first horses domesticated by the Botai culture around 6,000 years ago. Some of these horses likely escaped and became the feral Przewalski’s horse we see today.
Sandra Olsen, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Kansas summarized the study’s findings on reuters.com: “The world lost truly wild horses perhaps hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but we are only just now learning this fact, with the results of this research.”
Did you know that all Przewalski’s horses today can be traced back to just 15 individuals captured from the wild a century ago? Named after the Russian explorer who discovered them in the 19th century, the breed was saved from extinction and recently reintroduced to their homeland in Mongolia.
13. Male horses have more teeth than females
Stallions and geldings are more likely to have wolf teeth, which is why male horses will often have 40 teeth while mares will only have 36. According to thehorse.com, around 70% of horses will develop wolf teeth at the age of 5 months to a year.
But why do only some horses have wolf teeth? As explained by veterinarian Glennon Mays, the ancestors of horses were small browsers that lived in forests. Their diet consisted mainly of twigs and leaves, and wolf teeth helped them properly chew their food.
However, since horses evolved to be grazers, the need for wolf teeth slowly diminished. When present, horse owners often remove these teeth as they can interfere with the bit and cause discomfort to the horse. This has become a routine procedure in performance horses.
14. Horses’ hooves are made up of keratin
Just like our hair and nails, horses’ hooves are also made of keratin. Because they’re constantly growing, it is paramount that your horse gets a trim at regular intervals. This is especially important with young horses, as neglected hooves at this age can result in crooked legs and compromised welfare.
15. The most expensive horse ever was sold for $70m
In 2000, a Thoroughbred racehorse called Fusaichi Pegasus was purchased for a staggering $70 million by Coolmore Stud in Ireland. Considering his astronomical price, the horse turned out to be a disappointment. Although he did sire three Grade 1 stakes winners and was the grandsire of Belmont Stakes winner Ruler on Ice.
Prior to becoming a sire, Fusaichi Pegasus had a successful racing career with total earnings of $2 million. He won six out of his nine starts, including the Kentucky Derby in 2000. He is currently based in Kentucky.
Also, read our guide on the most expensive horses ever.
16. The most popular horse breed is the American Quarter Horse
The American Quarter Horse Association is the largest breed society in the world, and over 2.8 million horses were registered in 2020 alone. 2.4 million Quarter Horses live in the United States right now, and hundreds of thousands are scattered across the world.
Muscular and stocky, Quarter Horses were originally bred to be sprinters that excel at quarter-mile races. Today, they are primarily used as Western horses, but their versatility allows them to do well in almost any discipline. Other popular breeds include the Thoroughbred and the Arabian.
17. The closest relative to horses are donkeys, zebras and rhinos
What these animals have in common is that they all have an odd number of toes. There are only three families of odd-toed ungulates in the world: rhinos, equines (horses, zebras, and donkeys), and the Brazilian tapir. In contrast, even-toed ungulates are a lot more common and include cows, goats, sheep, deer and many more.
Although horses, donkeys and zebras have different numbers of chromosomes, they can all reproduce with each other. However, the resulting offspring will almost always be sterile. A cross between a donkey stallion and a mare produces a mule, which were a popular choice for pulling wagons and logging on the American frontier.
18. Horses can understand & interpret human emotions
A study by the Universities of Sussex and Portsmouth found that horses can read human facial expressions and remember a person’s previous emotional state, adapting their behavior accordingly. This ability comes naturally to horses as they have complex facial expressions themselves.
Another study by Smith and colleagues (2016) detected an increase in heart rate when horses were looking at angry human faces versus happy ones. The study concluded that horses can accurately identify positive and negative human facial expressions and were more stressed when looking at angry faces.
To learn more, read our fascinating guide on how smart horses are.
19. Horses living in a herd always have a sentry
Horses greatly increase their chances of survival by sticking together in a herd, but they still have to be vigilant for predators. In a herd, one horse will always be on the lookout for possible dangers while the others are resting, grazing or sleeping.
A wild herd is usually made up of one stallion, 8-10 mares and their foals. Some herds are larger or smaller and can even have two stallions, although this is rare. The role of the stallion is to breed and protect the mares, while a lead mare will guide the herd to new grazing spots and water sources.
20. Horses can walk & run within a couple of hours after birth
Being able to keep up with the herd is essential for a newborn foal’s survival in the wild. Hence why horses evolved to have long legs and fully formed hooves at birth.
Most foals will stand up within 30 minutes to one hour after being born. Just compare that to the abilities of a human baby!
21. The Sorraia is the rarest horse breed with fewer than 200 left
Originating in Portugal, these feral ponies nearly went extinct in the early 20th century. Today, they are the focus of conservation efforts that aim to preserve and recover this endangered horse breed.
Sorraias are thought to be the descendants of primitive horses native to southern Iberia. They display primitive markings such as a dorsal line and zebra stripes on the legs. They can be various shades of dun and have a convex profile.
These small but sturdy horses are considered to be “at-risk” by the Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2007, fewer than 200 horses remained, including only 80 broodmares. Most existing Sorraias are found in Portugal, with a small number of horses in Germany.
What’s more, all members of the breed descend from just one paternal line. Sorraias are especially talented in herding bulls, but also do well as a dressage or light harness horse.
Read our list of the 10 most endangered horse breeds.
22. Horses can grow a mustache
Commonly seen on the beautiful Gypsy Vanner horse breed, a horse’s mustache is thought to help them differentiate between types of grass and feel objects right in front of them. On most horses, this is the role of long sensory hairs also known as whiskers.
Until recently, riders used to trim these hairs before competitions to give the horse’s muzzle a tidier look. However, research has shown that trimming these hairs impairs the horse’s ability to “see” objects in the blind spot right in front of the nose.
As of July 1, 2021, it is illegal to trim a horse’s whiskers on FEI (International Equestrian Federation) competitions. According to the new rule, any horse that has its sensory hairs removed will be disqualified from competition.
Read our funny horse mustache article (yes, we have one!).
23. The smallest horse on record was a tiny 17.5 inches tall
Thumbelina (2001-2018) was a dwarf miniature horse who became an international sensation due to her incredibly small height. Standing a mere 17.5 inches (44.5 cm) tall with a weight of 57 pounds (26 kg), Thumbelina became the world’s smallest horse ever.
The tiny chestnut mare was born on a miniature horse farm in St. Louis, Missouri. After making it into the Guinness World Records, Thumbelina even toured the United States to meet her fans.
After Thumbelina passed away, Einstein became the smallest living horse in the world, standing only 2 feet (61 cm) tall. He is a miniature pinto stallion from New Hampshire. Einstein has also been recorded as the smallest foal in history, with a tiny height of 14 inches (35.6cm) and weight of 6 pounds (2.7kg) at birth.
See our guide to the smallest horse breeds.
24. Horses have been successfully cloned
In 2003, a Haflinger filly called Prometea was born to a genetically identical mother in Italy. She was the first horse to be successfully cloned, following the birth of a mule clone earlier in 2003.
There’s still a lot of controversy surrounding the cloning of horses and other animals. However, some equine experts suggest the technology could be used to clone successful geldings and use them as breeding stallions.
Interested to learn more? Meet Kurt, an adorable cloned Przewalski foal from 40-year-old DNA.
25. Horses can only breathe through their nose
Horses are obligatory nasal breathers and therefore cannot breathe through their mouths. The reason for this is the position of their epiglottis, which forms an airtight seal with the soft palate. While food can easily pass from the horse’s mouth to the esophagus, the passage of the trachea into the mouth is permanently blocked.
In certain conditions such as the dorsal displacement of the soft palate, the airtight seal is broken and air is able to pass from the trachea to the horse’s mouth. This often results in audible respiratory noises and poor athletic performance.
26. Horses can’t spend a lot of time on an empty stomach
Horses spend 16 to 18 hours a day grazing for a reason. Their stomachs are supposed to always have foodstuff in them to function efficiently.
Fasting for 1 to 2 hours can already cause discomfort in the horse’s stomach. However, if horses are deprived of food for long periods of time, they will almost certainly develop painful stomach ulcers. This is because the accumulated stomach acid meant to break down food particles will start to damage the stomach lining.
Gastric ulceration has become a major problem in racing and performance horses. To prevent this condition, make sure to allow your horse plenty of turnout and forage in his stable.
27. Horses produce around 10 gallons of saliva a day
The three pairs of salivary glands horses have can produce up to 10 gallons (40 liters) of saliva a day! This is roughly 40 times the amount humans produce. To make up this much saliva, horses consume 5-10 gallons (22.7-40 liters) of water a day, depending on the weather.
Saliva doesn’t just help with swallowing, it also acts as a buffer to counter the acids in the stomach. This is essential in horses as they can easily develop ulcers even after a short fasting period.
28. Horses don’t have collarbones
In most mammals, collarbones attach the arms to the skeleton and stabilize the shoulders. However, in horses this function is performed by the thoracic sling instead. The thoracic sling is a group of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that attach the forelimbs to the rest of the body.
The reason why horses and other four-legged runners don’t have collarbones is so they can run at a faster speed. Having a collarbone would restrict the horse’s reach and stride length, making them much slower runners.
29. The average horse weighs about 1,000 pounds
That’s right, a half a ton! But many horses weigh more or less than this. Draft horses, for example, can weigh 2,200 pounds (nearly a ton) on average.
The world’s heaviest horse also held the record for the tallest horse in history. This one-of-a-kind equine was Sampson, a Shire horse from England who weighed no less than 3,360 pounds (1,524 kg)!
At birth, horses weigh around 10% of their mother’s weight. They will grow rapidly in early life, putting on 1 to 3 pounds (0.45 to 1.36 kg) a day.
30. Horses can move their eyes separately
The horse’s eyes, set on opposite sides of the head, can actually focus on two different things at one time. This is a survival adaptation to help them notice predators
What’s more, the horse’s ears will usually point in the direction where the eye on the same side is looking. Observe your horse the next time you’re out together and see for yourself!
31. A horse’s frog is a natural shock-absorber
The frog is a triangle-shaped structure on the bottom of the horse’s foot. One of its many functions is absorbing shock and distributing it to the internal digital cushion, a spongy structure under the horse’s heels. This natural ability of the frog to absorb and disperse shock spares the horse’s joints and bones from concussive forces.
Another essential function of the frog is to pump venous blood back up the horse’s leg. This is the reason why it’s often called the horse’s “second heart”.
32. The average horse’s heart is over 10 times bigger than ours
The size of an average horse’s heart is 9-10 pounds (4-4.5 kg), whereas a human heart only weighs 10-12 ounces (0.28-0.34 kg) on average. Racehorses have even bigger hearts, and heart size was the key to the success of many racing legends. Secretariat’s heart weighed an astonishing 21 to 22 pounds (9.5-10 kg), while Phar Lap’s heart was 14 pounds (6.35 kg).
You can easily calculate how heavy your horse’s heart is if you know his body weight. Research has shown that a horse’s heart weighs around 1% of his body weight.
33. An entire new hoof takes 10-12 months to regrow
A horse’s hooves normally grow at a rate of ¼ inch to ½ inch per month. However, this can vary throughout the year. Horses’ hooves are known to grow faster during the summer months.
34. Horses have 4 natural gaits
The four natural gaits of horses are walk, trot, canter and gallop. Lay people often use the words “canter” and “gallop” interchangeably, even though they are not the same. Gallop is a four-beat gait and a lot faster than canter, which is a three-beat gait.
Besides the four basic gaits, some horse breeds have additional ones. The Icelandic horse, for example, is famous for its comfortable but fast pace and tölt gaits.
Other examples are the Missouri Fox Trotter that performs a unique fox trot instead of a regular trot, or the Tennessee Walking Horse famous for its running walk. There are over thirty gaited horse breeds in the world that exhibit at least one four-beat ambling gait.
35. Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal
Horses surpass all other terrestrial mammals in the sheer size of their eyes. In comparison to ours, horses’ eyes are eight times bigger! Arabian horses have especially large eyes when compared to other breeds.
36. There are no albino horses
Albinism does not exist in horses. Some coat colors may look like albino at first glance, such as the maximum sabino, cremello, or perlino. However, research has shown that the gene responsible for these colors is not an albino gene.
Very rarely, horses can be born pure white with pink skin that some people might mistake for an albino horse. This color is called dominant white, and it’s fundamentally different from an albino. Dominant white horses have no pigment cells, while albino animals have the normal amount.
Some white foals will carry a gene linked to a condition called lethal white syndrome. These foals look like a regular dominant white and always have blue eyes, but will die within 72 hours after birth.
37. Horses are not native to the Americas
While the modern horse didn’t develop in the Americas, its ancestors lived there for millions of years before mysteriously going extinct around 8,000-12,000 years ago. Scientists are still searching for an explanation, with some possible causes being climate change and overhunting by humans.
Luckily, horses migrated from Alaska to Eurasia around 2-3 million years ago, where they survived. After disappearing from the face of America, it wasn’t until the late 15th century that horses returned alongside Christopher Columbus.
Countless fossil remains have been uncovered that prove the existence of ancient horses on the American continent. Both the Eohippus, the oldest ancestor of horses that lived between 56-33.9 million years ago and the first species of the genus Equus have been found in the United States.
If you’re interested in learning more, read our article on are horses native to North America?
38. The highest recorded jump by a horse is 8 feet 1.25 inches
On February 5, 1949, Captain Alberto Larraguibel Morales cleared 8 ft 1.25 in (2.47 m) riding Huaso ex-Faithful in Vina del Mar, Chile. The FEI stated that anyone who wants to beat the record set by the Thoroughbred has to jump 2.49 m.
Interestingly, an unofficial record is held by American Fred Wettach Jr. and his horse King’s Own. The pair jumped 8 ft 3.5 in (2.53 m) in front of 25 people, which didn’t count as an official attempt.
Furthermore, the longest jump ever (28 ft or 8.4 m) was performed by Andre Ferreira and his horse Something over a water obstacle. The record was set on April 25, 1975 at the National Event “Rend Show” in Johannesburg, South Africa.
39. The longest horse race is 1,000 km
The annual Mongol Derby is the world’s longest and toughest horse race, stretching across 1,000 km (621 mi) of Mongolian steppe. 45+ competitors set out each year to complete the race on semi-feral native horses.
The race consists of 40 km (24.85 mi) long sections, at the end of which competitors change horses. The sections have to be completed entirely on horseback, and if you fall off at the 39th km, you have to walk all the way back to the base.
According to Equestrianists, around 1,500 Mongolian horses are prepared for the race each year. All horses receive a vet check before the start of the race and after completing a section. Only competitors whose horses are fully fit ad healthy can continue the race.
The Mongol Derby is the ultimate survival race where horse and rider can only rely on themselves. Most people train for years before taking part in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
40. Twin horses are extremely rare
Unlike most mammals, horses are not meant to nourish more than one fetus. When a twin pregnancy is detected by ultrasound, the smaller embryo will usually be eliminated by a vet to save the mare and the remaining foal.
However, if such a pregnancy is not detected early on, mare owners might decide to keep both foals despite the risk. The procedure to remove one of the foals at a later stage is an expensive surgery that most people can’t afford.
There have been many cases when twin foals were successfully born. One example is the famous Arabian twin colts Majus ZF and Majician ZF that developed inside a single placenta!
Want to learn more about the magical world of horses? Here’s a video of 10 unusual horse facts that will surprise most equestrians: