The family Equidae consists of horses, donkeys, mules and zebras. But do you know the difference between equines? A mule and a donkey for example, or between a pony and a miniature horse or a horse for that matter?

It is thought that the genus originated in North America and soon spread throughout the world.

Przewalski’s horse is the only true breed of wild horse in existence. These horses were never domesticated. They originated in Mongolia, where they died out but were reintroduced in the late 1980s to two reserves. Recent genetic studies indicate that Przewalski’s horse is not an ancestor to modern domesticated horses. It is an endangered species.

But what of the famous horses of the Camargue, or the Namib Desert horses, the brumbies or the mustangs? These herds are actually domesticated horses that have escaped or been chased into the wild. They are feral or untamed, rather than wild ~ they are not truly “wild” in the biological sense of having no domesticated ancestors.

Human activities have threatened wild equine populations and out of the seven living species, only the plains zebra remains widespread and abundant.


The word ‘zebra’ is derived from an Old Portuguese term “zevra” which means wild ass. Zebras are, of course, famous for their white and black stripes. They are social animals and are found in large herds or small harems. Zebras have never been domesticated. There are three species of zebra. In South Africa we have Burchell’s zebra, which is portly and plentiful, while the Cape mountain zebra is retiring and rare.

Horse and zebra.

A zebra has a striped coat, while a horse can have various colours and markings but is never naturally striped.  The stripe pattern on each zebra is different. Scientists think that rather than being for camouflage, the stripes are to confuse predators. In a large herd of zebra it is difficult for predator to pick out one individual from the mass of stripes.

Zebra are really more like donkeys than horses. A zebra has a solid striped tail with a tuft of hair right at the end of the tail like a donkey, while a horse’s tail is made of long hair.

The bone structure is different. A zebra has a much stockier build than a horse, being shaped more like a donkey. A zebra is much stronger than a domesticated horse of a similar size. Zebra also have long ears that stick up, rather than the shorter ears of a horse. Horses have long hairy manes that fall onto their necks; zebra have stiff short manes like donkeys. Zebra, unlike horses, are not built for riding, they have no withers, (i.e. the bump at the joint between the neck and shoulders,) nor do zebra have a dip in the back to allow for a saddle.

In temperament too horses and zebra are very different. Zebra are unpredictable, easily stressed and tend to panic under pressure. Zebra will bite viciously. Horses can be domesticated whereas it is next to impossible to domesticate a zebra. Both horses and zebra are herd animals and herbivores, although zebra will eat shrubs and bushes if grass is unavailable whereas horses will not.


It is quite easy to distinguish between a horse and a donkey, although there are some physical similarities. Another name for donkey is ass.

Donkeys have visibly longer ears, while horses tend to have longer faces. The hair making up donkeys’ manes and tails is stiff and bristly, whereas horses’ manes and tails have softer and more flowing hair. Donkeys have smaller hooves than horses of a comparable size, and the frogs of the hooves are in a different position. Donkeys’ backs are flatter than horses’ and more often than not cannot hold a saddle.


Donkeys and horses differ on a genetic level: horses have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62.

Both horses and donkeys are social creatures, but horses are naturally herd animals and prefer to live in a larger group, whereas donkeys tend to pair off and form a strong bond with just one other of their kind. Horses have an extremely strong flight response and will run from any perceived danger, but donkeys are harder to startle and will consider the risk before they decide to either run or stick around.


A mule is produced when you breed a male donkey to a female horse, also known as a mare. A “hinny,” meanwhile, is produced when you breed a stallion, or male horse, with a female donkey. Mules possess characteristics of both of their parents.

Mules and hinnies have 63 chromosomes. Because of their parents’ incompatible chromosomes, these creatures are generally sterile. So if you try to breed two mules with each other, you’re not going to have much luck.

Mules can take after their horse parent or their donkey parent, making easy identification a little bit trickier than it is with an animal which is 100 percent horse or donkey. Mules often have the flatter spines and larger ears that their donkey heritage passes on to them. However, mules tend to be larger than donkeys, with more delicate bone structure. Mules can be used for many of the same riding disciplines that horses are used for, depending on the quality of the mule.

Horse vs. donkey vs. mule.

The physical characteristics that mules share with horses include shape of the body, a uniform of coat, and teeth. The hooves of a mule are harder than those of a horse. There is a large variation in the colour and size for both donkeys and mules worldwide.

The coat of a mule is usually brown (sorrel) or bay but there is considerable variety just like horses. Other common colours are black and grey, while less common coats are white, roans (both blue and red), palomino, dun and buckskin.

Donkeys are usually grey but some are dark brown, black or light-faced roan. They also have dorsal stripes (a dark stripe from mane to tail) and a crosswise stripe on the shoulders.

Every mule has a unique bray that is a combination of the horse’s whinny and the grunting of the wind-down of a bray. Most mules start out Whinee….. like a horse and end in -aw ah aw like a donkey.

Both donkeys and mules love broad-leaved weeds and roughage such as barley straw. This should form a large part of their diet but donkeys must not be fed large amounts of protein, bread, puffed rice or processed food because they may develop foot disease and become lame.

Donkeys have a life span of 30-50 years. Mules have a lower life span of about 30-40 years. The modern domestic horse can live about 25-30 years, although a few live longer.


The main difference between a horse and a pony is size. In general, a horse is an equine that stands 14.2 hands high or more and a pony is an equine that stands under that mark. One hand is equivalent to around 10cm. The height of equines is measured in hands and inches. When written, a pony or horse’s height is written in the number of hands, followed by a decimal and then the number of inches. For instance, if a horse is 61 inches tall, its height would be written as 15.3 h for 15 hands and 3 inches. A 15.3h horse is therefore around 155.4cm.


The height of ponies and horses is measured from the highest point of the withers, which is the point where the neck meets the back. The withers is used for measurement since it is a stable part of the anatomy, unlike the head and neck which move up and down with the body of the horse.

There are other physical differences. Ponies are typically much stockier than their horse relatives. They also have thicker manes, tails, and coats, so are better able to endure cold weather. They have proportionally shorter legs, wider barrels (body of the pony that encloses the ribcage and all major internal organs), heavier bones, shorter and thicker necks, and short heads with broader foreheads.

Ponies are alleged to have calmer temperaments and a high level of equine intelligence.

Miniature Horses

Just when you thought you had all your equines sorted, along comes the miniature horse.

Horse and miniature horse.

Although some miniature horses resemble ponies, the goal of miniature horse breeders is to create a tiny horse, with everything about it the same as a full-sized horse, only smaller. They should not have short legs, thick necks, or big bellies. A mini is shorter than the smallest ponies. A mini must be no taller than 34 inches/85cm, measured at the top of the shoulders, where the mane ends. Miniature horses are measured in terms of inches while ponies are measured in terms of hands. A full-grown mini weighs between 65-115 kilograms.

Miniature horses come in every possible horse colour. Ponies have a thicker coat than a mini. Miniature horses eat less than ponies. A group of five minis can enjoy one acre of land while only one pony can enjoy the same land size. Miniature horses are better used as home companions whereas ponies can be used for driving and riding.

This is part one of a series on Equines. 

In this series:

What you should know before buying a horse;

How to feed a horse;

Equine Theft: A Growing Scourge;

What to do if your horse is stolen;

How to check your horses’ health.

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