Horse Breeds: A guide to different horse breeds
Do you know your Suffolk Punch from your Clydesdale, and can you tell a Cleveland Bay from a Thoroughbred? To the untrained eye, many horses can look quite alike. But, while all domestic horses and ponies belong to the same species — Equus ferus caballus — there are many hundreds of different breeds, all of which have their own unique physical characteristics and temperaments.
The sheer number of different kinds of horses and ponies can be overwhelming, even for equestrian enthusiasts. So, to help you brush up on your knowledge, we’ve put together a list of common horse breeds that you’re likely to come across in the UK, along with some facts about the size, traits, origins, and common uses of each type. We’ll cover:
- How many horse breeds are there?
- List of horse breeds in alphabetical order
- Horse breeds by region
- Endangered and rare horse breeds
How many horse breeds are there?
There are thought to well be over 350 breeds of horse in existence around the globe today. However, given that there’s no scientifically accepted definition for what formally constitutes a horse breed, there isn’t an exact number. Plus, new types of horse are always being bred, meaning that the overall total continues to increase by the day.
While the definition is somewhat vague, it’s generally accepted that a breed is a type of horse that displays distinct true-breeding characteristics over several generations. There are a number of societies that protect and promote each one, to help ensure that standards for each type of horse remain consistent. The bloodlines of certain horse breeds are also recorded in General Stud Books, which help breeders ensure that their animals are of true purebred heritage.
Some breeds have stricter rules about what does and doesn’t constitute a purebred. For example, certain breeds — including Thoroughbred horses — can only be considered a true example if they possess a very narrow set of characteristics. However, for other types of breeds where the pedigree is less important, the definition of what constitutes a purebred can be much broader and more variable.
The reason there are so many breeds is all to do with the history of horses as working animals. Over thousands of years, people have selectively bred horses and ponies to emphasise traits that make them well-suited to different kinds of work, from farming and industry, to sport and leisure. Many breeds are also deeply rooted in the area where they are bred, with characteristics that help them to thrive in certain landscapes and weather conditions — you can learn more about this in our horse breeds by region section.
As a result of years selective breeding, horses are quite a unique animal in terms of the sheer variety between different breeds. For instance, how many other animal subspecies boast a size difference quite like that between a Shire horse and a Shetland pony? The incredible versatility and variety of horses is one of the many reasons that these creatures have remained our constant companions throughout the centuries.
Horse breeds by region
While many horses and ponies are selectively bred with the intention of making them more suitable for a particular kind of work or sport, the landscape and climate that they are bred in can also greatly influence their physical characteristics. As a result, horse breeds are often closely tied to the place where they first originated. Many are even named after the place where the breed was first established.
In this guide, you’ll find information about a number of the most popular and well-known horse breeds from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Given the huge number of different horse breeds out there, it’s important to note that this guide is by no means exhaustive. However, you will find most of the most common horse breeds that you’re likely to encounter in the UK and Ireland.
If you’re looking to buy a horse or pony of your own, then this guide is a great place to begin your research, especially if you’re still making up your mind about what size horse you will need, and which type will best suit your needs and lifestyle.
English Horse Breeds
Cleveland Bay Horse
Size: 15.2–16 hands.
Physical appearance: The Cleveland Bay has a large head with a convex face, a long strong neck, sloping shoulders, clean legs, and powerful hindquarters. They have a very handsome, noble appearance.
Permitted colours: A rich bay colour (hence the name). Some Cleveland Bays also have a white marking on the forehead.
Characteristics and uses: The Cleveland Bay is one of the oldest known English horse breeds, and was originally used for agriculture and pulling coaches. Over the years, Thoroughbred blood was introduced to the breed, and the Cleveland Bay became a competitive sport horse. They’re now quite a popular horse for all kinds of sports, especially showjumping and hunting.
Cleveland Bays are also sometimes used at state occasions and royal celebrations, no doubt thanks to their powerful, handsome appearance and beautiful bay colouring. They generally have a calm, sensible disposition.
Size: 14–14.2 hands.
Physical appearance: The Dale pony is small in stature with a strong neck, broad chest, long sloping shoulders, and strong hindquarters and legs. They usually possess silky feathered legs and thick, shaggy manes and tails that make them hardy enough to stand the unforgiving climate of the Dales. They are closely related to the Fell pony, which is a little more pony-like in terms of build.
Permitted colours: Black and brown are common, but bay, brown, and sometimes even grey or roan may be permitted.
Characteristics and uses: These plucky ponies are brave, docile, calm, and hard-working, all characteristics that make them very suitable as family ponies. They possess enough stamina and power to excel at trekking and long-distance riding, but can also make fine jumpers, too.
Size: Up to around 12.2 hands.
Physical appearance: Dartmoor ponies are small, hardy, and strong, and often possess great stamina. They have a small head with large eyes, thick necks, a well-laid back, sloping shoulders, and strong hindquarters.
Permitted colours: Bay, brown, or black, although occasionally other colours may occur.
Characteristics and uses: The Dartmoor is the native pony breed of Devon. They’re reliable, hardy, sensible and good natured. As a result of their calm dispositions and small stature, they make excellent ponies for children, although they are strong enough to carry small adults quite readily. They are typically used for dressage, events, showjumping, and carriage driving.
There’s often some confusion about this breed: contrary to what many people assume, not all wild ponies that roam the moors in Devon are true Dartmoors, as these may also be mixed with other unknown breeds. The Dartmoors that are sold today as sport and leisure ponies are often carefully bred by breeders to ensure purebred status.
Size: 11.2–12.3 hands.
Physical appearance: Exmoor ponies have a powerful stocky build, with short, strong legs, a thick neck, deep chest, and broad back. They have a wide forehead with large eyes. Exmoors are renowned for their strength, stamina, and hardiness.
Permitted colours: Brown, dark bay, or dun, usually with distinctive pangaré markings around the eyes, muzzle, flanks, and underbelly. White markings are not permitted.
Characteristics and uses: The Exmoor is another very old native English breed, and the first written reference to these plucky ponies is found in the Domesday book. In the past they were used as pit ponies and for agricultural work. Now, they’re more commonly used for sport, particularly showing, long-distance riding, driving, and agility, all of which they can excel at thanks to their strength and stamina.
They are also very useful for conservational grazing, contributing to the management of a number of natural pasture habitats in England.
Size: 13 to 14 hands.
Physical appearance: A close relative of the Dale pony, the Fell is small in stature with a strong neck, broad chest, long sloping shoulders, and strong hindquarters and legs. They usually possess silky feathered legs and thick, shaggy manes and tails. These ponies are known for their hardiness, strength, and sure-footedness.
Permitted colours: Black and brown are most common, but bay and grey may be permitted.
Characteristics and uses: Originally bred in the Cumberland and Westmorland regions of England, the Fell pony is hardy enough to cope with the tough mountainous climate of the Pennines. Today, these agile ponies are valued as cross-country, hunting, or trekking animals. They generally aren’t used for showjumping, but are sometimes used at Pony Club events. Fells make great family ponies owing to their docile and sensible dispositions.
Size: 14.2–16.2 hands
Physical appearance: Hackney horses are slim, with a naturally showy appearance. They possess a broad, well-defined chest, a crested neck, a clean throat, powerful hindquarters, and a high tail. They have a finely shaped head, and expressive eyes that make them look alert and lively.
Permitted colours: Any solid colour, particularly bay, brown, chestnut and black. Some may also have white markings, especially on the legs and head.
Characteristics and uses: The Hackney is best known for its showy high-stepping trot and brisk, springy walk, both of which give this breed a flashy appearance. They make ideal show horses and are especially competitive in harness, showjumping, and dressage competition. The Hackney pony is also recognised as a variant on the breed and shares many characteristics, although it does not have its own stud book.
Size: 12–14.2 hands.
Physical appearance: The classic purebred New Forest pony has a long head with typical pony features. They have a short neck and back, with sloping shoulders, and strong hindquarters. They’re known for their hardiness and straight action.
Permitted colours: Any colour, with the exception of piebald or skewbald.
Characteristics and uses: In the past, New Forests were often used in mining and farming. However, throughout the 1800s, the breed was gradually improved with the introduction of Arabian and Thoroughbred blood, making them well suited to a number of sports, including cross-country, dressage, driving, showjumping, and gymkhanas. Intelligent, sure-footed, docile, and friendly, they are good family ponies.
As with the Dartmoor, the iconic wild ponies roaming the New Forest are not necessarily always considered true examples of the breed, owing to the difficulty of maintaining purity out in open country.
Size: 16.2–18 hands.
Physical appearance: Best known for their immense size, the Shire is easily the largest breed of horse. They have a broad forehead and a slightly rounded, prominent nose, a thick neck, and a very muscular and powerful body with feathery legs. Their size and strength give them a great capacity for weight-pulling.
Permitted colours: Stallions may be black, bay, brown, or grey, but are not permitted to have large white markings. Mares and geldings may also be roan. Chestnut stallions are not permitted in the UK, but are recognised in the US.
Characteristics and uses: Shire horses are a type of draught horse, and were traditionally used for drawing carts and delivering large quantities of ale — a tradition that some breweries still maintain to this day. The Shire horse has a very easy-going temperament, which means they’re also sometimes used for leisure riding and pulling carriages.
Size: 15.2–17.2 hands.
Physical appearance: Compact but extremely strong, the Suffolk Punch possesses a broad head, thick neck, short muscular body, and relatively short, clean legs. Their powerful build makes them good doers, and they have energetic gaits.
Permitted colours: Only chesnut (spelled without the “t”). Some Suffolk Punch horses may have white markings on the head or feet, but breeding stallions are never permitted white marks on the fetlocks.
Characteristics and uses: The majestic and powerful Suffolk Punch is one of the oldest heavy horse breeds in Britain, and all contemporary lines can be traced back to a single stallion: Crisp’s horse of Ufford, which foaled in 1768. They were traditionally used as draught horses, and excelled in pulling competitions. Today, they are used for showing or pulling brewery drays. They are docile, agile, and known to be hard workers.
Size: 14.2–17 hands.
Physical appearance: Thoroughbreds are powerful and graceful, with a well-chiselled head, long neck, sloping shoulders, and a deep body. They possess muscular hindquarters and long legs that give them incredible agility and speed.
Permitted colours: Any solid colour. Bay, dark bay, chestnut, brown and black tend to be the most common colours. They may have small white markings on the face or leg, but generally not on the body.
Characteristics and uses: English Thoroughbreds are at the centre of Britain’s world-renowned racing industry. They are spirited and bold in nature, and may be used as a racehorse, competition horse, or riding horse for leisure. The prestigious breed traces back to the late 17th and early 18th century, when three Arabian stallions were imported into Yorkshire and Derbyshire and bred with existing breeds. This established a genetic pool of powerful, fast, and hot-blooded horses that are primed for sport — especially racing.
Since 1793, Weatherbys have recorded the pedigree of every foal born to a Thoroughbred horse in the General Stud Book, to protect and promote the breed. The only horses that may be called Thoroughbreds and permitted to race professionally are those registered in this book.
Scottish Horse Breeds
Size: 17 hands and over.
Physical appearance: The Clydesdale is a very large horse with a broad head with a straight profile, a long thick neck, sloping shoulders, and a short back. They have strong, muscular hindquarters, and feathered legs, and normally stand with their hocks close together. They’re very strong animals with a great capacity for pulling heavy loads.
Permitted colours: Bay, brown, roan, and black. Most have white legs, and some also have white patches on the belly and face.
Characteristics and uses: Originating from the Clydesdale Valley area in Lanarkshire, Scotland, the Clydesdale is a type of draught horse that shares some of the same characteristics as a Shire horse, although they tend to be a little more lively and alert. They were originally used for agriculture and heavy hauling, and may still be used for draught purposes today. They are also often shown or kept for leisure, and are popular as carriage horses. Clydesdales are frequently used as parade horses, most notably by the British Household Cavalry.
Size: 12 and 13.2 hands
Physical appearance: The Eriskay has a relatively large head with a wide forehead, and a well-muscled neck and shoulder. The chest is deep but usually not very broad, and they have a strong back. They are quite similar to an Exmoor pony in terms of body type. The Eriskay has a dense, waterproof coat that provides protection from the harsh Scottish climate.
Permitted colours: Grey is most common, though bay and black are also permitted. They typically have light pangaré markings on the muzzle and around the eyes.
Characteristics and uses: The Eriskay is the native breed of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, and has ancient Celtic and Norse blood. Most are now domesticated, although there is still a small herd of feral ponies on the Holy Isle. Domesticated Eriskays were typically used as crofters’ ponies or draught animals. They have a kindly, easy-going, and patient disposition. Eriskays make great mounts for children, and are sometimes used for therapy riding.
Size: 13 to 14.2 hands.
Physical appearance: A small pony with a broad head and neat face, a strong body, and short strong legs. They’re very hardy ponies, and grow a dense, weatherproof coat during the winter that allows them to live out in all conditions.
Permitted colours: Dun, grey, black, brown, bay, and occasionally liver chestnut with a silver mane and tail. Many Highland ponies also have a dorsal stripe.
Characteristics and uses: The Highland pony is valued for its sure-footedness, a trait that allows it to easily traverse the difficult and hilly Scottish terrain. They have a sensitive, docile and intelligent temperament. They were traditionally used for farming, hunting, and hauling timber. These days, the Highland is typically used as a trekking pony, and is still used for certain kinds of forestry work. The Queen owns a large working stud of Highland ponies, which are used for hunting.
Size: 10.2 hands (maximum).
Physical appearance: The Shetland is one of the smallest horse breeds, and has a broad head, sloped shoulders, and a short back and legs. They also have a shorter than average cannon-bone in relation to their overall size. Despite their small stature, they’re strong, hardy, and can live on sparse grazing, making them ideally suited to the tough climate and terrain of the Shetland Isles.
Permitted colours: Any colour other than spotted.
Characteristics and uses: One of the best-known types of smaller pony, the charming Shetland is full of character, and can be quite stubborn and independent. While the exact origins are unknown, it’s thought that small, Shetland-like ponies have been living on the Isles since the Bronze Age. After domestication, they were used to pull carts and plough land for many years.
They make good mounts for young children, and are also popular as driving ponies for adults. Shetlands with gentler dispositions are also used as therapy animals, or as companions to larger ponies and horses.
Welsh Horse Breeds
Welsh Mountain Pony (Section A)
Size: 12 hands (maximum).
Physical appearance: Welsh Mountain ponies (Section A) are the smallest of the four welsh breeds, all of which share many characteristics and are mainly distinguished by height. Mountain ponies have a small head with delicate features and large eyes that give them a sweet look, and sloping shoulders, a short back, and short legs. Their movement is free and straight.
Permitted colours: Any colour except piebald and skewbald. The archetypal Welsh pony is grey.
Characteristics and uses: They are usually intelligent, friendly, spirited, and quite plucky. Over the years, they’ve had many uses, including as pit ponies, farm ponies, and even mounted cavalry horses. Like all Welsh pony breeds, they make fine jumpers and mounts for children.
Welsh Riding Type Pony (Section B)
Size: 13.2 hands (maximum).
Physical appearance: The Welsh Riding Type Pony (Section B) shares many of the same attributes as the Welsh Mountain pony (Section A), except they are slightly larger in stature. They have quick, free, and straight movement.
Permitted colours: Any colour except piebald and skewbald.
Characteristics and uses: Much the same as a Welsh Mountain Pony (Section A). They were commonly used as riding ponies by shepherds and farmers in the hilly regions of Wales.
Welsh Pony of Cob Type (Section C)
Size: 13.2 hands (maximum).
Physical appearance: Very similar to a Section B Welsh pony, but stronger and thicker set.
Permitted colours: Any colour except piebald and skewbald.
Characteristics and uses: Similar to a Welsh Mountain Pony (Section A) and Welsh Riding Type Pony (Section B). The Welsh cob makes an excellent riding pony for children or smaller adults and teenagers, and is a strong jumper.
Welsh Cob (Section D)
Size: 13.2 and over.
Physical appearance: The Welsh Cob (Section D) is the largest and strongest of the Welsh pony breeds. They possess a fine head, long neck, strong shoulders, deep girth, and a muscular back and hindquarters. Their movement is free and definite.
Permitted colours: Any colour except piebald and skewbald.
Characteristics and uses: Sharing the same intelligent, spirited, and willing disposition as other Welsh ponies, the Cob (Section D) makes a good driving, trekking, and jumping pony. As the tallest of the four Welsh horses, the Section D Cob can be ridden by adults as well as children.
Irish Horse Breeds
Size: 12.2–14.2 hands
Physical appearance: Connemara ponies — or “connies” — have relatively short, strong legs, and a finely shaped back and neck. They possess classic pony facial features such as large, wide-spaced eyes and short ears. Refined, prominent cheekbones give them a sweet, appealing look.
Permitted colours: Many colours are permitted — including grey, black, brown, bay, dun, chestnut, and palomino — but never piebald or skewbald.
Characteristics and uses: Bred in Ireland, Connemaras are friendly and intelligent, and are prized for their athleticism and sure-footedness. They are incredibly versatile, competing in showjumping, dressage, eventing, and even endurance riding, and make great show ponies. They are suitable for both adults and children to ride. They make an excellent choice for older veterans looking for a smaller pony, especially when crossed with a Thoroughbred.
Endangered and Rare Horse Breeds
Of the breeds we’ve listed above, five are considered to be in a “critically endangered” by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust: the Cleveland Bay, Hackney, Dales, Suffolk Punch and Eriskay.
This means that there are less than 300 registered breeding mares or less of each breed in existence.
The Dartmoor and Exmoor pony are both considered to be “endangered”, meaning there are currently between 300–500 breeding mares for each type. Slightly less rare are the Clydesdale, Fell, and Highland breeds, which are only classified as “vulnerable”. The Shire horse is considered to be “at risk”, with 900–1500 breeding mares in existence.
Many of these horse and pony types are under threat because they are either working breeds that have been replaced by mechanisation or vehicles, or because they are wild breeds and so require expensive conservation efforts in order to maintain numbers. Generally speaking, the most popular horse breeds in the UK today are those that are primarily used for sport or leisure, or kept as pets and companions.
Hopefully, this guide has made you more informed about the most common horse breeds in the UK and Ireland today. If you’re interested in learning more about horses of all kinds, be sure to browse the extensive range of expert training and learning guides that we have here at Horse & Country TV. Plus, if you decide to subscribe, you’ll also get access to a huge selection of sports coverage, live events, and all the latest news on all things equestrian. Join our exciting community of horse lovers today.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust 2020–2021 watchlist, available at https://www.rbst.org.uk/watchlist-overview.