Size Matters. Really.

(c) Lynne Glazer

(c) Lynne Glazer

In earlier posts we’ve mentioned The Giant Fantasy Horse as being less than desirable in a realistic equine context. Yes, there are a number of normal-sized people riding giant horses, and the horses are lovely, talented, and so on, but giant horses, like giants of any other species, have special needs that may not be conducive to adventures, errantries, or long expeditions through difficult country.

First however, a pause for some parameter-setting, and also for  a bit of entertainment. Go watch. I’ll wait.

Isn’t that a riot? These are two extremes of horse size–by no means the smallest or the largest of their species, but they are fairly far apart in height. The Shetland pony is fully grown, adult, and extremely well trained. He is 12.1 hands, which is 49 inches at the withers. The Shire is a solid 24 inches taller at 18.1 hands. Notice the difference in agility, lightness, and stamina. The pony originated in the Shetland Isles, where forage is sparse and poor. Smaller animals eat less, and can make better use of what they do eat, than larger animals. A Shetland, as you can see, is still quite strong and can carry an adult human with little difficulty. He is also tough, hardy, and well adapted to the harsh climate of the isles.

The Shire was, so the legend says, bred originally under the order of King John of England as a “Great Horse” for the use of knights in battle and in jousts. He was, therefore, meant to be a tank: large, heavy, massive, and capable en masse of battering down the walls of a city. What he is not is quick, agile, or easy to maneuver. He also needs a lot of fuel, which makes him expensive to keep. He would not have been ridden to those battles or jousts. He would have been very carefully guarded and cared for, because he was worth a literal fortune; the knight would have been riding a smaller, lighter, more cost-effective horse.

Big horses cost a lot to keep, but that’s not the only reason why a giant is a poor choice for the knight errant or the fantasy hero on quest. The structure of the horse is admirably designed for life on the steppe, fueled by large amounts of grass and roughage, and escaping predators with the aid of long legs and a cardiovascular system designed for speed and stamina. Optimal size for this animal is between 14 and 15 hands (56 to 60 inches at the withers).  (Horses and ponies are separate subspecies. A pony is not a baby horse. It is its own thing, and tends to average around the size of the Shetland in the video, up to somewhat over 14 hands and down to the “minis” who can be as small as 20 inches–though they are an extreme and often suffer from dwarfism.)

If the optimal size is at or below 60 inches, a horse that is 18 hands–72 inches–is pushing its luck as far as bone and muscle structure and cardiovascular system are concerned. His system will function less efficiently; he may be subject to problems related to size: arthritis and other bone problems, lack of stamina or carrying strength, and of course fuel efficiency. A very large or heavy rider is actually better off not riding a huge horse; a horse that big has all it can do to carry itself, let alone anything else. A better option is a shorter and very solidly built horse with a deep barrel and substantial legs and feet. Such a horse is called a cob. He will be around 15 hands,  stocky and sturdy, with plenty of carrying power.

This type of horse is also a good option for travel overland, because he tends to have high fuel efficiency and good stamina. The really great endurance horses are smaller and lighter–Arabians are the breed of choice here–but a good cob can go all day on low rations. He may not be flashy or glamorous and he’s probably not much for speed, but he’ll get the job done.

So, what to do to satisfy the desire for magic and fantasy? You don’t need to mount everybody on sturdy old Dobbin, though your obnoxious young knightling with an inflated sense of his own worth may produce some useful conflict if he is forced to ride something “beneath” him. The simplest answer is to size your fantasy horse down into the functional range, and emphasize other traits such as beauty, intelligence, stamina, and speed. Basically–Shadowfax. Tolkien was not a horseman, but he was wise and he understood. His horses of Rohan are admirably written and designed for what they are and do. He’s definitely on my short list of Authors Who Get It Right.

Oh, and? Shadowfax? Not horribly far off the norm for the baroque breeds (Andalusian, Lusitano, Lipizzaner), when all’s considered. There’s a nice model for the fantasy horse, tested and proved in the real world, and successfully enchanting humans since at least Roman times. In later posts we’ll look at other possibilities as well, including the Arabian, the Mustang, and yes, the old-fashioned Quarter Horse.

(c) Lynne Glazer

(c) Lynne Glazer




Size Matters. Really. — 10 Comments

  1. My 1898 guide to ‘every breed in the world’ (it’s surprisingly short for that) says about the Clydesdale: “16.h 2 in.; more rarely, 17 hands. It is uncommon to find Clydes much above this; if so, they are inclined to be gawky” and about the Shire: “the animal should not exceed 17 hands. If much above this it becomes ungainly in appearance, and faulty in action.” Food for thought. It does, however, acknowledge the occasionally existence of 8h Shetlands.

  2. That was an *awesome* video, and a terrific post. I confess to an abiding love of the Great Horses (there was a gigantic Belgian down the road from where I grew up), but I always generally understood that these enormous beasts were draft horses, not riding horses, and that the war horses were just that.

    I’d encountered the name ‘cob’ for a horse type before, but beyond a vague impression that it was undesireable (for breeders searching for litheness and grace, I suppose) I didn’t really know what it meant. So I have learned something today! Thank you! 🙂

  3. Catie, here’s a site that describes the type well:

    The “gypsy cob” and its relative the “Irish cob” has rather taken over the field in recent years, but cobs as a type are not hairy; these “hairy cobs” appeal to a certain demographic (which will pay incredible sums for them). The main thing is short legs, stocky build, and sturdiness. The Lipizzan is, by definition, a cob, though proponents of The Noblest Horse in Europe get all sniffy at the thought. OK, OK, I say, so it’s a really UPSCALE kind of cob.

    M, I’m thinking of talking about Friesians when we get to driving horses. That’s what they were designed for, and they’re very impressive at it.

    G-K, thank you. I was sliding around the issue, but you’re right; over 17 hands was considered excessive up until a couple of decades ago, when bigger-is-better became a trend. The “Great Horse” in his time was over 16 hands, not 18 hands and up. The everyday model of horse would run between 14 and 15 hands.

    We still have that in the American West. My 16+-hand Lipizzan (which is extremely large for the breed, and not considered desirable for breeding) is small in dressage terms, but around here she’s considered huge. Cutting-horse people want 14-handers; they maintain that bigger horses can’t get down and cut the cow properly. Ropers do want a taller horse, up to 16 hands, as it’s easier to get up and over the cow with the rope from that height. But fast, agile aspects of the cowboy sports are the domain of the smaller horse.

  4. The “bigger is better” mentality seems to be a general trend when it comes to horses. I’ve taken lessons at the same stable for a little over 20 years now, and the size of the horses has gradually migrated upwards. They still keep about the same ratio of ponies to horses, but where the horses before would be mainly between 155 cm to 165 cm, we now have mainly horses over 160 cm and with quite a few over 170 cm.

    I suppose it is also true that we have more adults taking lessons, and that the average weight of the riders has gone up, but for someone like me who likes riding smaller horses, its a bit frustrating that they won’t go for less tall and more solidly built horses. But of course, they are affected by what is on the market, and with everyone breeding bigger and bigger for both dressage and jumping, the ones ending up at riding school are less talented but still as big.

  5. Linda, you may be getting the aftershocks of the Riding Dinosaur fad of the Nineties. Most of your school horses would have been born in that period, wouldn’t they, or soon after it? That was when everyone was breeding huge. Then as problems multiplied and breeders caught on, the standards shifted down again, to the point that if it’s over 17 hands in some Verbands, it won’t get breeding approval. But the foals from that trend would still be fairly young and not that far along in their riding careers.

    The baroques have suffered from this, too, and seem not to be shifting gears. The Andalusian used to be 15 to 16 hands. Then it became 15.2 to 16.2. And now it’s headed for 17 hands. That’s really not functional for the build and structure of the breed. Lipizzans have been fighting a rearguard action against this, with a faction insisting that the 16-handers are “better” and “more modern” and “more marketable” and another faction clinging to the old standard of 14.2 to 15.2 with nothing over 15.3 getting breeding approval. That’s solid cob territory, of course, and is the optimal size for the structure and function of the breed–over that they have difficulties with the higher-level movements; they’re so sturdy to start with that a really big Lipp is really, really BIG. My mare who’s 16.1 has some serious moves–she loves to courbette–but if she were a hand shorter she’d be safer doing it. She’s extremely massive at that not very considerable for a Warmblood height.

  6. The problem with the tall horses is that they tend to be all leg. My nearly-16hh TB type was not cobby at all, but a good weight carrier – short, compact, deep in the barrel. (And, thanks to athleticism and built had a much easier time carrying weight than the weak-coupled, overweight 16.3 Shirecross I used to ride.) He took a 54inch girth and a wide saddle – I’ve ridden 17.1 horses with less substance.

    Germany went through the Riding Elephant phase in the 1980s, and rather briefly – there are serious problems with long-term soundness, and some of those overtall horses just cannot learn to coordinate their legs.

  7. 17hh andalusian?! that’s so wrong. blah.

    I love me some giant horses to hug, but to ride I always prefer 14 – 16hh. I used to lease a purebred arabian who was a freak at 16hh but since he was an arab he moved more collected than TB or warmblood counterparts. It’s always been harder for me to ride horses with naturally long strides.

    re: the friesian comment, I’m always impressed by people who ride them well. I rode one once at my stable while the owner was on vacation, and that was the bounciest horse I have ever ridden haha. Sitting trot? umm not so much. DEFINITELY bred for driving!

  8. All I can say about Friesians is that watching one canter at a dressage show made my shoulders hurt in sympathy with the rider. Definitely driving horses, not riding horses. My trainer had a young Belgian in for saddle training, and you could feel the earth shake under him when he moved–and I was more impressed by the potential of various halter-bred Impressive descendants under saddle than him (in-joke for Quarter Horse people. Impressive was a QH stallion who not only dominated the show halter scene and led to the current development of horse as fat stock animal, but passed on a major problematic genetic disease called HYPP–basically, a metabolic seizure disorder. Lovely halter horses, but I’ve only known a couple of Impressives who were good under saddle).

    As for hot, athletic and fiery, you can’t go too far wrong with a phenotype represented by an Arab or a performance-bred QH. These smaller, athletic horses also possess the capability to turn quickly and dump a rider unprepared for the speed at which the short-coupled, catty horse can move laterally and reverse directions. In low-level timed jumping competitions, I’ve seen the quick Quarter Horse beat the larger TBs and warmbloods.

    My mare is an example of that small (14.2 hh), short-backed, square-built, athletic phenotype which happens across several light saddle breeds such as the Thoroughbred, Arab, QH, and Morgan. My trainer has a Morgan-Arab cross with similar characteristics. This phenotype would serve anyone well who wants to write about a spirited, athletic horse that could carry just about any rider. These horses often come with well-sprung ribs, which means that they take up the leg of all but the biggest riders, so that the rider looks proportionate.

  9. A quick note on tall horses — when I started taking my 15.2 hand TWH mare out on trail rides (instead of the 14.2 hand arab i had ridden with them for years) with my local BackCountry horseman group, everyone laughed at me as I had to duck WAY more often for low hanging branches. :).