When you’re choosing a horse, you may think that a taller or bigger horse is always a stronger horse, but this is not necessarily the case. There are a lot of factors that go into choosing the right size horse to suit your needs. In this article, will review some of the things you should keep in mind when choosing the right horse for you. We also offer smart alternatives and sound advice to help you make this choice. Read on to learn more on how to choose the right size horse.
What You'll Learn Today
- 1 Why Is It So Important To Match Horse Size To Rider Size?
- 2 Consider These Important Factors On A Horse-by-Horse Basis
- 3 How Do You Condition Your Horse?
- 4 Are Pure Bred Horses Strongest?
- 5 Are Draft Horses A Good Choice For Heavy Rider?
- 6 Look For A Sturdy Cross
- 7 Adopt A Wild Horse
- 8 What If You Need A Much Stronger Mount?
- 9 Strength And Sensibility Are Both Important When Choosing The Right Horse
- 10 Avoid Overburdening Your Horse
- 11 Choose Your Tack Carefully
- 12 What Are The Dangers Of Horse And Rider Mismatch?
- 13 Choose The Right Sized Horse With Care
- 14 Frequently Asked Questions
Why Is It So Important To Match Horse Size To Rider Size?
Modern people are bigger than people were a century ago, but modern horses are not! With every generation, human beings tend to gain size; however, horses are pretty much the same size they have always been.
In the 1800s and early 1900s women were usually no taller than 5 feet. Men were usually about 5 1/2 feet high. Furthermore, our ancestors tended to be a lot more slim and trim than we are today.
The average woman today is about 5’ 7” and weighs between 145-185 pounds. Men are typically 6 feet tall or more and weigh between 175- 225 pounds.
There are also quite a few people who are much bigger than this and would’ve been considered giants in the 1800s and early 1900s.
For the most part, most breeds of horses have stayed the same size since the turn of the 20th century, and many breeds have recently been bred more for a refined, streamlined appearance rather than for strength.
One exception to the rule is some types of quarter horses which are often bred for their stockiness and strength.
Consider These Important Factors On A Horse-by-Horse Basis
When you’re looking for a horse to suit your needs, size and breed may be good initial indicators of suitability, but there are a number of other important factors you should keep in mind.
Age & Training Experience Are Important Considerations
When looking for a horse that is strong enough to carry you comfortably, you should also consider its age and its training.
Because racehorses begin their careers at two years old, many people believe that two years old is the right age to begin riding your horse, but this is not true.
Remember that racehorses are intended to reach their peak quickly and then retire (or be disposed of) by the age of 5-7. This is not what you want for your companion riding horse.
Even though racehorses are trained hard during their second year and are often raced at the age of two, it’s important to realize that hard work at this early age can be extremely damaging to a horse, so you should avoid starting your horse too early or purchasing a horse who was started too early.
The fact is, most horses reach full physical maturity at around four or five years of age. Saddle training should begin no earlier than three, and young horses should only carry light loads until the age of five or six.
It is especially important to be aware of the fact that the vertebrae in the spinal column do not fuse until a horse is at least five years of age.
This is why it’s extremely important not to subject your horse to heavy work while he is still very young.
Horses that have been started too early may have lifelong, chronic injuries that will deteriorate with the passage of time. Find out how and when your horse was trained and avoid horses that were worked too hard too early.
When learning about a horse’s training history, you should also look into how your horse has been kept and fed. A horse that receives improper feeding in its formative years is unlikely to be sound.
Height May Be A Liability Rather Than An Asset
A horse’s height is not always a good indicator of his strength. Bone structure is far more important than height.
When you are mounted, your feet should not hang much lower than the horse’s belly, but if you’re making a trade-off between strength and height, err more toward strength and away from height.
A tall, refined horse may present a more elegant silhouette when mounted by a tall rider, but that horse may not be strong enough to carry the weight of that rider.
No matter what size horse you need, you should look for one that has a sound body and sturdy enough legs to carry that body along with your weight and the weight of your tack.
When Do Horses Stop Growing?
One very important aspect of physical maturity is the hardening of the skeletal structure.
Even though most horses attain their final height by the age of two, they still need two or three more years for the skeletal structure to mature and put on adult strength and muscle.
A horse’s skeletal structure is not actually complete until he is about six years old.
Throughout a young horse’s skeletal structure, there are growth plates made of cartilage which gradually fuse and harden to become bone as the horse matures.
This process should be complete by the time the horse is six years old, but in tall horses it can take even longer.
Be Sure Your Horse Is Sound
Always get your vet to perform a soundness examination any horse you are considering buying.
Your vet will look at the conformation, his hooves, teeth, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, muscle tone, reflexes, movement and other aspects of the animal’s fitness or soundness.
Depending on your vet’s level of experience, he or she may or may not be able to tell you whether the horse is a good size for you.
A fitness or soundness exam is intended to simply determine whether or not the horse is in good shape for riding.
Avoid Dainty Hooves
The size of a horse’s hooves is also an important indicator of how able he is to carry a larger rider.
Horses with very small hooves simply have less efficient weight distribution in the hooves. Excessive weight can lead to laminitis.
Look for horses with larger, well shaped, strong hooves. Examine the hooves carefully. The sole of the hoof should be concave.
Avoid a horse with a flat foot that allows the sole of the hoof to come in constant contact with the ground.
Hooves should be cone-shaped, not straight up and down (unless you are looking at a donkey or mule). The keratin of the hooves should be sturdy, strong and free of cracks and chips.
Learn How To Judge Conformation
A horse’s overall conformation also affects his overall strength. Conformation is the structure or shape of the horse. A horse with poor conformation may be unbalanced and lack strengths.
See this excellent post from the University of Minnesota for a detailed description of the ideal horse’s conformation.
A horse with good conformation is structurally stronger. Keep in mind that in addition to skinny legs, a long skinny back will make a horse weaker.
If you are a heavier rider, you’ll be better off with a shorter, stockier horse who has a short, sturdy back rather than a tall, slim horse with a long, slim back.
Evaluate The Strength Of The Horse’s Legs
If you are a larger or heavier rider simply because your own frame is big boned and/or muscular, you should take great care to choose a horse who is strong enough to carry your weight.
Your weight should not add up to more than 20% of the horse’s weight.
Another thing to keep in mind is the strength of the horse’s legs. Very often a stocky horse might have very slim legs and small hooves.
This situation is especially problematic just because of the weight of the horse. Add in the weight of the rider and tack, and you have a good recipe for lameness.
To determine if your horse has strong enough legs to bear his weight and yours, follow these steps:
- First add up the weight of yourself, your tack and your horse.
- Second, use a tape measure to measure around your horse’s canon bone (this is the bone between the front fetlock and the knee)
- Third, divide your weight total by the measurement of the canon bone.
- Fourth, divide that result in half.
If your final number is lower than 75, the horse’s legs are strong enough to bear the weight that you are presenting.
If the final number is between 75 and 80, the result is acceptable; however, it would be good to take steps to reduce the weight of your tack and your own weight if you can.
If your final number is higher than 80, it means that your horse’s legs may be too weak to carry the amount of weight you are presenting. This can mean that you need to choose a different horse.
Alternately, it may indicate a need for more training to strengthen your horses legs; more training to reduce the amount of weight that you are putting in the saddle; lighter weight tack and a revised riding schedule which avoids riding downhill, for long periods of time and other stressors.
How Do You Condition Your Horse?
When you’re shopping for a horse you may encounter lots of horses that have not been ridden for quite some time and will need to be put on an exercise program to get in shape for riding.
Don’t overdo it. Excessive exercise can cause injuries to horses and riders.
Hand walking your horse is an excellent way for you and your horse to get into shape and to build some rapport so that you can work well together when you do begin riding.
Once you start riding, go for long, slow strolls to put on some long-distance miles. Calm, comfortable walks will help you and your horse get into good riding shape.
These kinds of low-pressure rides provide an excellent opportunity for you and your horse to get to know one another. The time you invest will pay off in more challenging riding situations or in case of emergency.
Are Pure Bred Horses Strongest?
Some horse breeds that were bred for strength in days gone by are now bred for beauty.
One example of this is the Tennessee Walking Horse which was originally bred to be ridden all day by plantation owners who typically tended to be full-sized, well fed men.
These men usually weighed between 150-165 pounds, which was considered heavy in those days.
Modern Tennessee Walking Horses are not bred for the kind of strength and endurance that would get them through a full day carrying a full grown man.
Most don’t have the sturdy bone structure, deep chest and solid rump typical of the original Tennessee Walkers.
Slim built Tennessee Walkers are very lovely, but they’re not able to carry a lot of weight over an extended period of time.
Some breeders have realized that this is a detriment and have started focusing on breeding for strength and size.
American Saddlebreds are another example of horses that are not as strong and rugged as they once were.
The original American Saddlebred was an all around, sturdy horse that could be used for hunting, cross country events, jumping and as a carriage horse.
The American Saddlebred of today is a far more refined looking horse. It does not have the rugged endurance of its ancestors.
Thoroughbreds are very popular horses, but it’s important to realize that most of them are intended to carry a very light rider (125 pounds or less) at a sprint for short distance.
For this reason, this type of horse might not be the best choice for trail horse or a pleasure riding horse.
Generally speaking, European Thoroughbreds are sturdier and have a stronger skeletal structure than American Thoroughbreds.
Are Draft Horses A Good Choice For Heavy Rider?
A draft horse is a strong horse, but it’s important to realize that these horses have been bred to pull not to carry.
These large horses’ backs may not actually be strong enough to carry an average sized rider at a canter or even a trot.
If you want a big, calm horse to amble around on, and you are not especially heavy, a draft horse could be a good choice.
Even so, take care when choosing a draft horse who has been worked. Older draft horses may have problems with arthritis.
Look For A Sturdy Cross
Because riders are getting bigger and the “refinement” of many breeds has led to an epidemic of unsoundness, larger boned horses are now being bred by crossing draft horses with saddle horses for hunting, jumping, pleasure riding and more.
These larger, stronger horses are often crosses such as Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse or Saddlebred/Quarter Horse.
Keep in mind that bigger, heavier horses are also slower to mature than lightweight horses. If you are looking at one of these stronger, heavier crosses make certain that training was not started too soon.
Remember that a horse intended to provide a lifetime of good riding enjoyment should not be started under saddle before the age of three.
Adopt A Wild Horse
Range bred wild horses are typically stronger and more rugged than domesticated purebred horses, but you must be an experienced horseman or woman to gentle and train one successfully.
These icons of American heritage can be adopted from the Bureau of Land Management and you may even qualify for $1000 in assistance to help with initial veterinary care and with training.
What If You Need A Much Stronger Mount?
If you are a larger, big boned, muscular rider who is quite heavy, you may want to consider riding a mammoth donkey or a mule.
Mammoth donkeys can be quite elegant and are extremely strong. These smart, sturdy animals typically stand about 14 hands high (56 inches).
They have strong, thick legs and nicely formed, sturdy bodies. It can be a little bit difficult to find mammoth donkeys because they are somewhat rare.
When you do find one, you’ll have a quiet, sensible, sturdy mount that can do just about anything a horse can do.
In this video, Piper, a female mammoth donkey shows some of the many things mammoth donkeys can do!
Another option is a mule. These animals are half donkey and half horse and typically have more horse-like qualities than a donkey.
Other than the ears, modern mules look very much like horses and have the grace and physical ability of a horse, combined with the endurance and the intelligence of a donkey. This is a powerful combination.
Here is “Holiday” a fancy broke mule demonstrating some of the many things that mules can do.
The difference between a mule and a horse is that these hybrids have smoother muscles. You can think of a mule as having the muscles of a weight lifter and horse as having the muscles of a runner. Mules simply have more physical strength for their size and greater endurance.
If you are an anxious rider, you may greatly prefer a donkey or a mule because they do not have the natural flight response found in horses.
When donkeys or mules are alarmed or startled, they tend to stand their ground and evaluate the situation. You are very unlikely to have a donkey or mule bolt out from under you.
Strength And Sensibility Are Both Important When Choosing The Right Horse
In addition to physical maturity, it’s important to keep emotional maturity in mind as well.
Young horses can be flighty and can have a difficult time understanding what you want from them. Some horses may take up to seven years to reach full emotional maturity.
Although you may be in a hurry to train your young horse to ride, remember that it’s always best to take your time and move forward carefully and respectfully.
When you do this, you can count on having a strong, healthy, cooperative horse to enjoy for 20 years or more.
This excellent video presents very good information on when to teach a horse to drive, and much of this information transfers to training to saddle.
It’s worth noting that driving can be an excellent activity for equestrians who are very overweight or those with disabilities that prevent riding.
Avoid Overburdening Your Horse
If you are overweight, you should strongly consider getting yourself in shape before you begin riding and before you choose your horse, donkey or mule.
Not only will you be lighter in the saddle when you get yourself to a healthy weight, you will be a better rider.
Horseback riding is not a passive pursuit. You need to have quick reflexes and good muscle tone to have a proper seat and to ride in an empathetic and responsive manner.
If you obtain a horse that is not in optimum condition, it’s important to help that horse build muscle with lots of hand walking.
Walking is an excellent way for you and your horse to build up bone density and muscle and get in shape.
Choose Your Tack Carefully
Western saddles from the 1800s and early 1900s typically had seat sizes of 12 1/2 to 14 1/2 inches, but today the average rider will use a saddle with a 17 or 18 inch seat.
If your saddle seat is too small, you will not be properly positioned in the saddle. This can cause damage to your hips and knees, not to mention ruining your ride.
Old-fashioned Western saddles are also incredibly heavy and can be injurious to both horse and rider.
Look for a modern, lightweight saddle that is a good fit for you and your horse. A saddle that is too heavy can cause you injury when you’re tacking up, and it’s just that much more weight and stress for your horse to deal with during the ride.
What Are The Dangers Of Horse And Rider Mismatch?
If you are too heavy for your horse or if you ride your horse too hard when he is very young or in poor shape, you can cause permanent damage.
The suspensory ligaments in a horse’s pasterns carry the weight and stress of the horse’s body and the weight of the rider.
Overdoing it causes a serious injury called Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Disease or Desmitis (DSLD).
In the past, this serious injury was called “coon-footed” and people thought that it was a problem with conformation. Today you’ll often hear DSLD referred to as dropped pasterns.
This is a condition that can sneak up on you because pasterns may drop one at a time. You may not be aware that a horse has DSLD until all of the pasterns have dropped.
This injury severely and negatively impacts the soundness of the suspensory ligaments. It also kick-starts a degenerative process that can spread throughout the horse’s musculoskeletal system.
If a horse has been overused or ridden by a rider who is just too heavy, this can ruin the horse for life.
There is no way to treat DSLD. Horses who experience this kind of injury will simply continue to get worse and worse and will experience a great deal of pain.
When your vet does a soundness check, he or she should also perform ultrasound testing on all of the horse’s legs. In this way, DSLD can be detected if it is present.
Choose The Right Sized Horse With Care
It’s easy to see that there are many things to consider when selecting a horse that can carry you comfortably and safely for many years. Refer to the information presented here when making your choice or planning your horse’s training program.
If you are inexperienced, be certain to seek out sound advice from trusted, experienced horsemen and women and from your veterinarian.
Frequently Asked Questions
Generally speaking, a riding horse can comfortably carry a rider who is no heavier than 20% of the horse’s body weight. It’s important to choose a horse who is big enough to carry you safely and comfortably.
If your feet hang far below the horse’s belly, you are too tall for that horse. Your feet should just be a couple of inches lower than the top of your horse’s front leg.
The 20% rule applies to all types of horses; however, a horse who is slimmer through the loins, has a longer back or is thin, old or in poor health itself may not be able to carry 20% of its body weight. Generally speaking, a stockier horse with a shorter, broader back is stronger than a tall, slim, long-backed horse.
If you are very heavy, your horse may stumble or even groan when you mount up, but very often a horse will strive to cooperate and perform stoically. If you are worried that you are too heavy for your horse, have an experienced horseman or woman observe when you mount up and move out. Your horse’s back should not dip when you are in the saddle. He or she should be able to move out crisply without bowing of the legs or dipping of the pasterns.
This depends upon the adult and the pony in question. An equine under 14HH is considered a pony, yet this is still a fairly good sized mount.
Many ponies are very strong and sturdy built, so even though they are a bit shorter, they are muscular and heavy themselves and able to carry 20% of their own weight without strain.
A pony is a good mount for a shorter adult or an older rider who may have a little trouble mounting up. For example, as she aged, skilled horsewoman, Queen Elizabeth transitioned from riding a full sized Saskatchewan thoroughbred (15-17HH), Burmese, to riding her favorite Fell pony (13.2HH), Emma.