Let’s Discuss: From Ponies to Horses

While I was hacking through London last month, one of the topics my guide and I discussed was ponies. Specifically, how the British in particular embrace ponies as suitable mounts for much longer than we do here in the States.

In the UK, pony jumpers are incredibly popular, and riders are eligible until the age of 16 to compete in the 148cm (i.e. pony) competitions. The European Pony Championships hold their showjumping event over a 1.2m (3’11”) course and with 45 riders representing their countries, it’s obvious that the idea of jumping ponies over height is not an anomaly there as it is here.

Even Jack Whitaker, though obviously being born into showjumping royalty, has to deal with his share of gritty pony wrangling:

And check out this well ridden course by a junior pony pair, liberally sprinkled with pony snark.

Pony jumpers, as well as other disciplines on small-statured mounts, seem not to be nearly as common in the States. Of course we see the adorable pig-tailed girls of the short stirrup classes, but when they get to be preteens, they’re already been riding horses for some time. Not to say this is wrong or right, since of course sometimes a taller horse that lacks typical the pony snarkiness is the safer option for a rider moving up.

But maybe it’s something else here that makes ponies, and short-statured horses unpopular after a certain age. Maybe older riders feel there’s a cultural stigma about riding a smaller mount. Maybe it goes with the bigger-is-better mentality that we Americans like to adopt. Maybe it has something to do with pony breeders, or the absence of marketing sport ponies to adult amateurs. Or maybe we need to see more Teddy O’Connor’s, or North Forks Cardi’s, in the top arenas before the vertically challenged equine becomes en vogue.

All I do know that after being involved with marketing and selling horses, that the ponies and <15.2h horses are the hardest to sell to the 14 and over crowd. Even a horse as cool and athletic as Riley, at 15.1h I wonder how easy he will be to market when the time comes.

Riding shorter horses can be a blast, but why do you think we don’t see so many shorter horses or ponies in the hands of adult amateurs? When did you make the move up to horses, and why? Would you consider riding something shorter if the right match presented itself?




37 thoughts on “Let’s Discuss: From Ponies to Horses

  1. Michelle rides a 13.3h pony and people’s initial reaction is always like *pat head* “aw lookit the cute wittle pony”. And then that thing jumps and moves like an absolute freak and the reaction changes to “damn, pony!”. Hawley Bennett and Buck Davidson were both super impressed once they saw her jump (Hawley tried to buy it!). Its like people here in the US expect a pony to be this slow, unathletic little blob and are shocked when they see one that isn’t. Michelle’s pony can outjump a lot of horses I know! Granted, I honestly do not know how she stays on it, I’d be left behind in the dirt lol. She’s thinking of breeding her to a warmblood stallion or a EuroPony (technical term), which would probably put the foal somewhere in the large pony/small horse range. Probably no one will buy it, despite the fact that it’d likely be able to jump a small house. It’d be a fun keeper though! Some day I’d love to have a Connie/TB cross, maybe in the 15-15.2h range. As long as it’s neck is longer than my upper body, we’re good. 😉

    • See I *love* that! Ponies can have mad hops too, and I’m thrilled to see that the Connemara crosses are becoming more popular over here. I really really wanted one too, but they are still hard to find (at the right age, of the right gender, in my price range ;P) I think we’re moving (glacially, perhaps) towards a more accepting view of shorter mounts for adults thanks to some of the German riding pony influence- so maybe if she bred her pony, by the time it was started it will be en vogue!

      • She really wants to have a pony jumper breeding division, it’s just super unlikely that they would really sell here. No one wants to pay much for a pony jumper, and they sure aren’t buying them as babies!

  2. I definitely am part of the crowd that rides a smaller animal. Kosmo is 15.1hh on a good day, and I’m 5’10”. There is definitely a stigma in the US against adult amateurs riding something smaller, especially in hunters. I’m a firm believer in that the excuse is that you don’t create that picturesque image. I could argue that the smaller horse is much better suited to the hunt field if you fall off 😉 Growing up, I wanted a Fjord so badly (still kinda do) and lamented when I hit my growth spurt because I knew how “silly” I’d look.

    However, I reached a point in my life where I didn’t care about the image: as you said, the match was made. Right now, I’m just happy to enter the occasional hunter show, jump around and sometimes get recognized with good ribbons, and just be happy. Not about the winning at all with me anymore. He’s still cute as a button in my eyes: I see his future career as an awesome long stirrup or short stirrup for my young’n (eventually).

  3. It should be about balance, both when it comes to horse and rider. Weight, height, condition are factors that matters. I’m 5’10 and an experienced rider. Since I’m only 135lbs I can easily ride a shorter horse. I don’t see any prestige in riding a certain kind of horse. If I would start competing in dressage I might get a big warm blood. There could be several factors when deciding if a young rider should have a pony or a horse. Ponies are usually “trained” by kids, or youths. It’s easier to find a well trained horse for a child, than a safe pony. Many things to consider. A good horse, or pony is always a good horse/pony, no matter size. An unbalanced rider does less damage on a bigger horse.

    • All very good points, for sure. Though for dressage there are purpose-bred ponies out there, though perhaps not as easy to find as the H/J bred ponies.

      The petite trainer who can make really polite ponies is definitely a bit of a diamond in the rough- but I can think of a few riders who somehow manage this with ease!

    • So I admit I don’t know a ton about the H/J rules.. Enlighten me- are there rules that say, for instance, that a pony couldn’t make it to the Maclays?

      • I don’t know a ton of the pony rules, but hunter/jumper divisions are not real friendly to adults on ponies. For example, there are a lot of medal classes they aren’t allowed to enter, though I’m totally blanking on which. In the jumper division things aren’t as tricky, because that’s more of a get it done or don’t type of situation, but judging for adults on ponies in hunters and equitation can be weird as well even in the classes where they’re allowed to enter. I think it would be great if they had adult pony classes! Maybe no pony finals (although I’d get a pony in a heart beat if they had adult pony finals. Lol.) but at least some pony specific classes maybe?

  4. Interesting post! I love ponies! I’m kind of a giant (6 ft tall) so I’ve been too tall for ponies for a while.

    That said, I prefer smaller horses… I would totally ride a pony if my legs wouldn’t drag on the ground. My two young horses are 15.3hh and they are plenty tall enough for me. I know all these 5’9″ girls who wouldn’t look at anything under 17hh because it would be too “too short”. I’ve worked at a dressage and showjumping barns in the past and none of the horses I met that were over 18hh stayed sound.

    • At 6′ that totally makes sense, as you don’t want to feel unbalanced, per Maria’s comment above. And you’ve got to ride what’s comfortable to you. It just makes me think of WFP and now I’m wondering how tall his shortest mounts are!

  5. My favorite topic! I ADORE my pony, and plan on having sport ponies forever. They are fantastic little athletes, and I feel much more comfortable on a small horse or pony than on a horse over 16hh. I love that in dressage and eventing, it’s becoming more and more common to see adults on ponies. Often ponies can be less intimidating and have easier-to-sit gaits than big horses, and for the average amateur rider, that’s a very attractive thing. I think the popularity of the hunters in this country, however, is what pushes kids away from ponies by the time they’re in their pre-teens. With set strides and distances between fences, many ponies are not able to ‘walk down the lines’ in the way that the judges want to see in the hunters, and can make getting the numbers difficult in equitation classes. So a big horse becomes a necessity for those competing in those disciplines. However, I think that ponies and honies are vey suitable for more petite adults, and would love to see them become even more popular and commonplace in the show ring in all disciplines!

    • The distances for hunters make sense. Although to that point though, what about the ponies that compete in the showjumpers (or Rolex 4*) and get around courses built on a horse stride? I guess it’s obvious that they aren’t making it look like a walk in the park as a larger horse would do, and that is the drawback for hunters? All speculatory of course!

      • While true that those ponies exist, and I so admire them, the ponies that are doing upper-level SJ or Eventing also aren’t your ‘average’ pony! And aside from there being rules barring adults from showing ponies in hunter classes, a competitive hunter makes those distances look slow and easy – something that is tough for ponies that don’t have a freakishly-large stride. Dino, for example, can generally do either the horse or the pony step because of his size and stride length, but getting the distances around a 3′ A/A hunter course wouldn’t look as smooth, easy, and relaxed for him as it would for a big horse, which would be very detrimental for him in the hunter ring. Loving the conversation in these comments! 🙂

    • The lines are set for the different size classes of ponies in Pony Hunter. They don’t have to run down the lines in competition to make the strides because the strides are tailored to them.

  6. ….they’re so….zippy. I could watch this all day! I’m not thaaaat tall, but I do have stupidly long legs, so I “outgrew” ponies shortly after I turned 12. Could I make it work? Absolutely. But I feel much more at home and balanced on a bigger horse. It makes the jumps look smaller too 😉
    I’ve known some ponies that jump absolutely incredibly- I think it would be amazing if the US could embrace this more and create a platform to show them off beyond kids at Pony Finals.

  7. I’m 5’8 and I swear, I’m never owning another horse over 15.2 hh. I’ll take a tiny sports car package over a school bus any day of the week. I have often wondered if more adults rode smaller (i.e. not 17hh+) horses if they would feel less intimidated/overfaced by their mounts? Certainly I’m way more confident on my little guys than I am on something ginormous.

      • I think at the national level a number of riders ride the Large Ponies, ride in Equitation divisions outside of the ponies, and compete in the big jumper classes on different horses when they are 15-18. Many hunter and equitation classes have horse height and rider age restrictions, so, no, you would not see a pony in the Maclay because a pony would not be a suitable mount, but those Maclay riders are riding ponies, too, in the pony divisions.

  8. Hunter/jumper rules are so weird — lots of rules about cross-entering at shows and such, so while there are Large Pony divisions for 15-18 year olds, they often split their time between ponies, equitation and/or jumpers.

    I actually would love to find a smaller horse (15.1-15.3hh) to do the hunters on… it’s just tough finding one that has a big enough stride so that it doesn’t appear to be “running” down the lines.

  9. This is a conversation I get to have a lot, being close to a pony breeder. I would say her sales are about 25% Dressage/eventing, 25% driving, and 50% middle aged women in a variety of sports who don’t feel comfortable on big horses. Personally, I am a braver, more confident rider on a pony, but I specifically chose a pony that rides like a horse. I can see over the top of his back to groom and blanket him, but I didn’t compromise on athleticism or performance. Unfortunately there’s just a lot of prejudice about there about what is “suitable” for sport, and until the Cardi’s and Teddy’s of the world are seen as normal instead of unusual, we pony people will continue to be a niche in the sporthorse world.

  10. I do like taller horses, they take up my leg and make the jumps looks smaller. However, I think riding some pony jumpers as a kid would have done me a world of good. If you can jump those snarky little things, what can’t you do?

  11. I am all over the pony thing – I love them. More attitude, more cute, less to feed, less far to fall 😀
    Here is Oz ponies are a big thing in the hacking rings (adults can ride them too). Pony dressage is slowly gaining in popularity, as are galloway sizes (>14.2hh to 15hhish) for the adult amateurs). I don’t see many in jumping comps though, probably because OTTBs and of course WBs are so common, so that’s what ppl get.

  12. Isabel wasn’t a pony, at 14.3. But close. And if I had owner her, and been able to make the choices I would have liked to make for her… Probably I would still be riding her.

  13. We have a few ponies in my barn and they’re by far the best jumpers and fanciest movers out of any of the 25 horses here. I never underestimate pony power!

  14. I’m 5’3″ so I’m a fan of shorter equines. In fact, during my last search for a dressage mount, my criteria included a Maximum height of 16hh (because I can’t mount anything taller from the ground and I trail ride on flat prairie). I did test ride a couple actual ponies, but ended up with my mare who is 15.2hh. Shorter heights don’t concern me, but the pony founder issue is something to consider depending on your horse-keeping style.

    One thing I find fascinating is the difference in height preferences between disciplines. For English horses, anything over about 16.2hh seems like it has quite a premium on its price. However, western is a totally different ball game. I ride at a western barn and even though I am the shortest rider there, I have the second tallest horse (at 15.2!). Quarter horses tend to be short y’all, (especially barrel racing, team roping, reining lines – HUS and AQHA showing can be different) and they have no issue carting around 6′ cowboys.

  15. Growing up in the hunters, I never rode ponies unless I was schooling something naughty. But that said, I have a 36″ long inseam and am 5’10”. (I never showed anything shorter than 16.2.) Now, I’m leasing a 15.1ish tall warmblood mare who has the scope for the 3’6” and the stride of a “big” horse, and she’s dynamite fun. She walks around the courses, which is what mostly concerned me when I was considering her.

    She’s totally changing my perspective on future horses! I would say that since she’s not superhorse size I do have to be more aware of my body (because I’m so long), but when is that ever a bad thing? She’s safe, adorable, and athletic…so why should I care if she’s not huge? I think that a lot of the juniors I ride with now underestimate how nice she is, and talk to her in baby pony voice to her. That’s cool…just don’t try to tell me she isn’t easily as sporty as our other hunters. 🙂

    P.S. Riley should come live with meeeeeee!!!!

  16. From my own memories of running summer camps and dealing with horses vs ponies, the ponies were often little sh*ts. I think s big part of the problem is that, if they’re small enough, it’s hard to get an adult to ride them and they learn they can get away with anything with little kids.

    As for the height thing, I always like the big horses, but Nilla is only 15hh and I’ve actually come to like that. Especially when I have to mount from the ground.

  17. Pingback: Let’s Discuss: What’s your range? | A House on a Hill

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