The Hype About Size

We’ve all seen it: For sale, 14.3hh three-year-old, will mature to 16hh. Even if there was some secret formula that you could give a horse to make it grow more than a hand after its third year, you probably still wouldn’t get your 16 hands because it stands 13.3 and has parents standing 14.2 and 15.1hh.
But slamming dishonest sellers has little point. I’m here not to try, but to ask the question: Even if you could make that horse grow to sixteen hands, why would you want to?
In the horse world it often appears that the common perception is bigger is better, which I personally have found not to be the truth. The best jumper I’ve ridden stands a mere 15.2hh, and will probably never be bigger than 15.3. And while the top jumping and dressage arenas are filled with horses between 15.3 and 16.3 hands high, I really don’t see any correlation between truly massive horses – 16.3 and up – and performance.
The world record holding jumper, whose record has stood for 65 years, stood 16.1hh. Valegro, the horse who holds three dressage world records, stands 16.2.
While there are exceptions to every rule, I feel there is a reason that most top horses are under 17hh: too big is a problem. Bigger is not always better. Tall horses are heavy, which makes it harder for them to get off the ground, which makes it harder for them to jump. They also struggle to take small turns, essential for the jump-off. While tall horses don’t have as far to jump as shorter ones, it makes logical sense that a lighter horse will jump with more ease.
As for dressage, big, tall, long horses can be incredibly difficult to put together. Dressage is about connection, and when you have a neck three miles long in front of you and a tail somewhere in the distance behind and hooves floundering around way below your altitude, it’s tough to connect anything. Again, a big horse often has bigger and flashier movement; but may not be able to be as light on its feet as a smaller one.
Perhaps it all comes down to personal preference. I like my horses short from front to back, but don’t care much how tall they are except when I have to get on. Obviously a taller horse is more daunting to handle, especially on the ground, but for the most part it’s length and movement that defines its ease of riding.
For me there are so many factors influencing performance – temperament, training, feeding, breeding, conformation – that height ranks very low on my criteria for choosing a top horse. A 15.2hh animal with talent can jump the socks off a beast two hands taller with poor conformation. It’s more about heart and build than height.

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About firnhyde

A disciple whom Jesus loved. Called to horsemanship, among other things, and an adoring spectator at God's own stableyard. Volunteer medic, Jersey breeder, occasional writer. Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. Luke 1:38
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5 Responses to The Hype About Size

  1. carey says:

    You make some good points. It really does come down to a lot more than height to make a good jumper or whatever you want. Big does equal (sometimes) bigger problems. Personally, I prefer taller horses that take up more of my leg (wider horses do this, too) and make the jumps look smaller as we approach 🙂

  2. Lyn says:

    While a big black horse of 17.5hh might look magnificent, it’s an awfully long way to fall 🙂 Imagine though, riding Sampson, owned by Thomas Cleaver of Bedfordshire, England in 1846, who stood 21.2½hh at the age of four years 😮

    • firnhyde says:

      Good golly, Lyn, I’d need a firetruck ladder to get on! I have been told that since I’m so light I float instead of fall, falling off ponies must be worse since I don’t have time to slow down. I was unimpressed.
      P. S. 17.5hh = 18.1hh. The decimal is misleading since it’s not really a decimal, it’s a measure of inches. Fourinches make a hand, so: 17.0, 17.1, 17.2, 17.3, 18.0, 18.1 🙂

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