What Is A Filly?

If you are at all interested in the world of horses, then you might have heard the word ‘filly’ being bandied around.

This is because the name for a young female horse is a filly or a filly foal. However, you might have heard this word used to incorrectly describe a young male horse too.

A filly is called a filly until it reaches the age of 4, after which it is called a mare. If you are going to describe one or more female foals, then you’ll be using the word fillies. You pronounce the word pretty much how it is spelled – ‘fill-ee’.

What Is A Filly?

Fillies are often slightly smaller than their male counterparts, although they can be trained just as easily and are often entered into races. Some owners often prefer to buy fillies as they do not need to go through the extra hassle of being castrated. 

But where does the word filly come from exactly? What do you call a young male and a young female horse? Why does filly have a different meaning in horse racing?

What are the characteristics of a young female horse? How can you tell the difference between this and an adult female horse?

Well, if you are interested in the terminological fine print of what to call a female horse, then we would suggest that you keep reading.

We’ll give you the lowdown on the difference between a colt, a filly and a foal, so that you can be sure that the next time you’ll point at a filly, you’ll know for sure that it is one.

Where Does The Word Filly Come From?

So, the roots of the word filly can be traced all the way back to the 15th Century in England. The word originally started as ‘fylja’, which then morphed as the Middle Ages went on into the word ‘filli’, which is another similar Old English word for ‘foal’.

There is a French counterpart to the word filly, which started off as ‘fille’. Many people think that this word merged with English variants to produce the word ‘filly’ that we still use to this day.

The word ‘filly’ can also be used to describe a human woman, although this is seen as derogatory and should not be used on any accounts.

The roots of this word being applied to young human women date from around the 16th Century.

What Is The Difference Between A Colt, A Foal Or A Filly?

What Is A Filly?

If you are referring to a young horse irrespective of gender, then you would refer to it as a ‘foal’.

However, if you do know the sex of the young horse, then we would recommend that you refer to it as a ‘colt’ (male) or a ‘filly’ (female). However, it is not incorrect to refer to a foal as a foal, even if you know the gender.

When a filly is still weaning, you might refer to it as a weanling filly, as this will demonstrate that you know that the filly is less than one year old. However, a yearling filly is a young female horse that is just approaching its first birthday.

You might hear a young filly being described as a mare as they approach two or three years of age. This might not be technically correct, as the term mare should only really apply to horses that are 4 years or over.

However, you might find some of these terms being used incorrectly, but it is only worth correcting to distinguish age and sex.

What Is A Filly?

What Distinguishes A Filly?

There is a general belief that young female horses are much more nimble than their male counterparts.

It is also suggested that fillies wean quicker, will be able to stand after just a few months and they will generally develop a lot faster, although this fact is debatable.

From a young age, colts (that is, young male foals) will be physically much stronger than female younglings. If they are gelded at a young age, then you can expect them to perform even better, especially in competitions and the like.

If you have bought a young male that is ungelded, then you will often have to go to the lengths of paying for the castration. This is why a lot of owners prefer to get their horses gelded for the extra speed and stamina that it will afford them.

If you are getting a filly, then you can have it sterilized to increase its performance and cut out the breeding urges that it will experience as it gets older.

However, most owners will view this as a costly and very time-consuming process that will actually not really improve the performance of a young mare.

Does Filly Have A Different Meaning In Horse Racing?

If you are going to be training your young female for racing, then you might start to hear the word filly used in a much broader context.

Often female racing horses of around 5 years old can be referred to as a filly. This is because horses that are under the age of 5 rarely get ridden, so they class them as fillies as soon as they can ride.

Other animals that are closely related to the horse are also referred to as fillies when they are younger. Don’t be surprised if you hear zebras, ponies, mules and young donkeys being referred to as fillies.

Our Final Say

We hope that our description of what the term filly means has helped you distinguish and identify one when you are next at the stables.

It is important to remember that a young female horse is only a filly when it reaches the age of 4, at which point it is referred to as a mare.

Catherine McDowl
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