As professionals within the sport of horse racing, we’re often guilty of throwing out jargon without recognising that some people reading or listening simply won’t understand it. That is especially true of descriptions of the horses themselves.
Race horses are categorised in a number of ways regarding their age, sex, breeding status and other classifications. These are all important within the industry, but are often shortened to acronyms or simply symbols on race cards.
Here, we’ll take you through the different ways in which horses are described, what the terms and titles mean and then how they change as horses go through their lives and careers.
Race Horse Descriptions
These are titles used to describe race horses and ex-race horses.
All females over a certain age are mares (see below), but once they are used for breeding, they are known as broodmares.
Many broodmares live long enough that some of their female offspring also become broodmares, making them now a broodmare dam.
Similar to the above, some stallions have female offspring who hit the breeding sheds and become broodmares, making the male a broodmare sire.
A colt is a young male. When you see that small ‘c’ next to a horse’s age in the race card, you know it’s a male of up to four years of age.
The dam is a horse’s mother.
While in human terms we separate grandfathers by calling them maternal or paternal grandfathers, with horses the grandfather on the female side is called the damsire.
The female equivalent to the colt, a filly is simply a young female horse who keeps this title up to and including the age of four.
When a horse is born, regardless of gender, it is known as a foal. They are known as this until they are officially one year old.
A male horse who has been castrated. This can happen when they are as young as two, but often later.
Gelding is done when they are what is known as ‘coltish’, not behaving properly and being distracted by the fillies. Horses like this are often gelded to improve their temperament, at least when it’s felt they wouldn’t be too valuable at stud as a stallion.
The grandmother of a horse on either side of its breeding is known as the granddam.
Just as on the female side the grandfather is called a damsire, on the male side this is a grandsire.
The males, referred to as colts up to four, become simply ‘horses’ at age five. Sometimes they are known as ‘full horses’ or ‘entires’, as long as they have not been gelded of course.
In flat racing, horses of either sex aged two years old are considered to be juveniles. Over the jumps, those aged three when the season gets going and becoming four at the turn of the year are known as juveniles.
Owing to various human tropes, many believe maidens are females but this is not true. Any horse, regardless of age and sex, is a maiden when they have not won a race.
As soon as the fillies turn five, they become mares. All older females are known as mares, with many ‘fillies and mares’ races being staged on the circuit.
A horse’s father. The sire and the dam are essentially a horse’s parents.
Not to be confused with ‘sire’, a stallion is a male horse who is now in the breeding sheds. Some horses become stallions and then head back to racing, but usually once a horse is a registered stallion, he gets to enjoy a great second part of his career.
As you’d expect when a horse turns one, they are a yearling. They keep this title until they turn two and become colts or fillies.
Popular Phraseology Describing Race Horses
Alongside the above terms are the more colloquial descriptions we give to certain horses. Regardless of their age, sex and breeding status, they may be described more loosely based on what temperament they have or had, and what distance they tend to cover.
These are the more popular descriptions:
It sounds cruel, but it simply means that the horse in question is physically weak or mentally immature for its age. While many horses come out and race at 2, some don’t make it onto the track until they’re 3 based on them being seen by the trainer as being ‘backward’ and needing time to strengthen up.
Many horses tend to prefer leading from the front and, unlike in races involving humans, using up this early energy does not always lead to them setting up a race for others. Many great front-runners have allowed canny jockeys to dictate the pace before choosing when to kick-on and leave their field for dead.
Unlike front-runners, many horses are better when there is a very strong pace, usually in a big field, which allows them to pick off tired runners late on. Such horses tend to be popular and well-backed, but will often be left wanting in smaller fields or when there is no great pace in the race.
Preferring longer trips than sprinters and milers but shorter ones than stayers (see all below), middle-distance horses cover a few specific race distances.
Middle-distance races on the flat tend to cover trips of around a mile-and-a-quarter to a mile-and-a-half. Those running in major races such as The Oaks, The Derby, the Eclipse, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Juddmonte International and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe would be middle-distance types.
As you’d imagine, a miler is a horse which runs predominantly (or better) over the distance of a mile.
Some may go up or down slightly in trip, especially as they get older, but many horses each year take in a programme including the 2000 Guineas, St James’s Palace Stakes, the Sussex Stakes and the QEII and will be considered to be bona fide milers.
This is used to describe a horse who is getting better, improving in their form. It describes almost all horses when they’re young, but is heavily used by professionals when handicapping and tipping as despite past form, the holy grail is to find a horse you believe will run better in its upcoming race than it has in the past.
A sprinter is a speed horse, one which is best over shorter trips. In Britain, we tend to class only five and six-furlong races as sprints, while in the USA sprints are considered to be up to seven furlongs.
A horse can be considered a sprinter, but may occasionally be sent over longer trips if their trainer feels it is appropriate.
The polar opposite to a sprinter, a stayer is a horse which prefers longer distances. On the flat, this term will usually be used when a horse is best over trips of 1¾ miles and above, usually 2 miles+, with some ‘middle-distance’ horses merging into the staying categories.
Very occasionally, you may hear such horses being described as ‘cup horses’. This is due to longer-distances races such as the Gold Cup at Ascot or the Yorkshire Cup being staying races. Over the jumps, a stayer is usually a horse which prefers three miles and over.