Did you know a lost horse can find its way home by sniffing out its previous footsteps and manure remnants? That’s because horses learn about their world through their nose, and this extraordinary sense of smell allows them to read the chemical messages in the air. They can recognize friends, sense danger, find food, discover sexual partners, and identify territories through smells. But their nostrils function for more than just smelling. If a horse’s nostrils are too small, it can limit the horse’s ability to breathe hard when exerting itself and that’s why horses with small nostrils are usually used for pleasure riding rather than for sports, such as polo, racing, or steeplechase. Just like a horse’s nose, there are other interesting things about horses that include its points.
The ears of a horse provide a general indication of the horse’s mood. One nineteenth century author described how you could tell a horse’s personality from its ears stating, “Tricky [horses] lay back their ears, snort and snap.” A horse’s ears are sensitive and rider’s sometimes grab them to restrain their horse, but this causes some horses to respond violently. In the 1800s, the ears were one thing purchasers looked at to determine the worth of a horse and sometimes they were tricked. Apparently, under-handed horse dealers would “drop some oil into the ears of horses, or a little cayenne pepper applied to the passage, to make them look attentive and spirited.” There was also controversy in the 1800s over whether or not to clip the hair inside a horse’s ear. One book advised against it protesting that the hair, beside protecting against dust, rain, and cold, served as a barrier against flies and the longer the ear hair, the better for the horse to stave off flies and their bites.
The age of a horse is said to be determined by its teeth, and “as the horse becomes older, his teeth are worn away, about one-twelfth of an inch every year,” until in the eighth year the markings are obliterated. This aging process long ago became tied to the old adage, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” The saying was a two-edged sword that supposedly cut both ways. It originated at a time when gifting of horses was common, and as the horse’s teeth were an indication of its age, it was considered rude to inspect them in a gifted horse. But it also meant a gift horse could masquerade as something malicious or something it was not. One invariable feature of any gift horse, at least according to one person, was that the person who received the gift had to accept it despite the fact the gift horse “may throw you, kick you, bite you; but if you would avoid giving mortal offence [sic] to the donors, you must mount when bidden, and ask no questions.”
Horses have the largest eyes of all land mammals and as their eyes sit on the sides of their heads, they have more than 350 degrees of vision, with a blind spot located at the front of their foreheads. With such wide, circular vision, a horse can tell if an animal is sneaking up behind them, and, on windy days, they are often skittish because too many things are swaying and blowing in the wind. Even when a horse is grazing his panoramic monocular vision is at work. Moreover, because horses have dichromatic vision, they see shades of red as green. They also have and superb daytime and nighttime vision. In the nineteenth century it was noted that a horse’s eyes and ears moved together, and “therefore will always be directed wherever the horse’s attention is attracted,” which you can note if you watch a horse. When a sound or sight captures their attention, they will stop what they are doing, lift their head to get a better look, and move their ears towards the sound.
If you’ve ever wondered how to identify one horse from another besides using size or color, many horses have unique markings on their face. Face markings include:
- a wide white strip down the middle of the face known as a blaze
- a bald face that has a wide blaze but extends past the eyes
- narrow stripes down the center of the face
- markings between the eyes known as stars
- markings on the muzzle (the lower part of a horse’s face that includes the chin, mouth, and nostrils) known as snips
A horse’s legs are part of the reason a horse can run at nearly 27 miles per hour and all horses have four basic gaits: walk, trot or jog, canter or lope, and the gallop. Interestingly, horses travel on the tips of their toes because the hoof of a horse is similar to a fingertip or toe tip of a human, but much stronger. The hooves also bear the animal’s weight and the old adage, “no hoof, no horse,” shows how important a good hoof is for a horse. To make sure the hooves are well cared for, most people developed routines established for a farrier to pare or trim them. Additionally, similar to the face, unique markings on a horse’s legs can be used to identify it. Leg markings include:
- a white marking that extends from the knee to the hoof is known as a stocking
- a marking that extends higher than the fetlock but not as high as the knee is known as socks
- a marking that extends from the pastern to the top of the hoof is known as a pastern
- markings usually no larger than 1 inch and that are placed above the hoof to form a band are called coronets
Horses have been with mankind for thousand of years, and it is estimated today that there are 59 million horses worldwide with 300 breeds of horses. Although we no longer use them like Jane Austen did to ride to London, like Madame Récamier did to pull her carriage, like Eliza de Feuillide did for doctor-ordered exercise, like Napoleon Bonaparte did in his military maneuvers, or like the eccentric Mr. Martin Van Butchell rode his grey pony daily near Hyde Park, they are still appreciated and used for leisure, work, and sports activities. One nineteenth century equestrian best summed up the horse stating:
“Of all the quadrupeds the horse presents in his aspect the most perfect symmetry of form … his finely-arched back, his flashing eye, his expanded and almost transparent nostrils, his flowing mane, and his gallant crest, his wavy tail and powerful quarters, all present so many points of grandeur and beauty, calculated to rouse the admiration … of [even] the most insensible beholder.”
-  Walther, F.H., The Horse-owner’s Guide, 1861, p. 28.
-  Ibid., p. 29.
-  Ibid., p. 36.
-  National Board of Health Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 11, 1897, p. 170.
-  Chambers’s Journal, Vol. 40, 1864, p. 414.
-  The Horse: Being a Collection of Weekly Papers, 1834, p. 269.
-  The Breeder’s Gazette, 1895, p. 75.
-  Richardson, H.D., The Horse: Its Varieties, Breeding and Management, 1848, p. 1.