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The Difference Between Horses and Ponies

Both novice horse riders and non-equestrians alike often wonder what, exactly, is the difference between a horse and a pony.

This question has both one pretty straightforward answer as well as some nuanced complexities, in this article we will discuss the most straightforward answer as well as some of these more nuanced answers to the question of how to define a horse or a pony.

Rule of thumb when telling the difference between a horse or a pony:

With only a few exceptions, the difference between a horse and a pony is height. When measured from the base of the hoof up to the top of the shoulders (where the horse’s neck meets their back in a bump). When this measurement is taken, an equire that is more than 14.2 hands (that’s 58 inches) is a horse, and any equine measuring under 14.2 hands from the base of the hoof to the withers where the neck meets the horses back is a pony. (Wondering why horses are measured in hands? check out our article on understanding horse height.)

image of a child riding a pony at a walk

When ponies aren’t ponies: exceptions to the rule

Sometimes, ponies aren’t ponies. For certain breeds of horse, just because a horse is under 14.2 hands tall doesn’t technically mean that it is a pony. For example, certain breeds like Halflinger horses are considered to be horses even if their height is under 14.2 hands high.

Similarly, there are breeds of equines that are, by braiding rather than by height, ponies. For example, Connemara, Welsh, and Shetland are common breeds of ponies. On occasion, a full-blooded pony may mature at a height over 14.2 hands high. It would not be incorrect to refer to this “horse” as a pony, since, by breeding, it is a pony.

What about foals?

Foal is the word for a newborn of both horse and pony parents. A foal from a pony mother is sometimes referred to as a pony-foal. These foals are smaller than typical horse foals and can even be confused for miniature horses.

How can I know a horse’s height without measuring?

You probably don’t carry a horse measuring tape in your pocket, so how can you to know if an equine measures over or under that magical 14.2 hands high measurement? There’s no hard and fast answer to this, short of gaining a whole lot of experience working with and around horses and ponies. One of the best ways to learn how to recognize and refer accurately to ponies is by acquainting yourself with a known pony. Once you have a sense of the size of a 14 to 14.2 hands high horse in comparison to your own body, it can be easier to tell the difference between a horse and a pony by sight.

Once you know where the withers of a 14.2 hands high horse come up to on your own body, you’ll be able to quickly recognize a pony when you are standing near it. For example, by looking at a horse’s withers and noticing if they are level with your chest, shoulders, chin, or eyeballs, you can learn to use your own body to make a pretty accurate guesses about horse and pony sizes.

The difference in uses of horses versus pony

The ways that horses and ponies are used overlaps more than you might think. For example, although some people may think of ponies as exclusively for children’s riding and full-sized horses for adults, it’s actually a lot more nuanced than this.

For example, although larger riders may purchase larger horses with the expectation that a horse can carry more weight than a pony, that’s not always true. Ponies tend to have more compact builds and shorter backs – making them anatomically more suited to carrying heavier weights relative to their own size.

Many adults enjoy riding ponies because ponies are easier to mount. Older riders may find it appealing that a fall from a pony may not be as far to the ground as a fall from a horse. Similarly, some small riders and children pair well with full-sized horses. Choosing whether a horse or a pony is right for you is a very personal choice.

A female horse trainer touching a grey horse's face

The difference between horse and pony tack

While the equipment used for ponies and horses is the same in form and function, it is generally not possible to use most horse equipment on ponies. Ponies, due to their size, require special equipment that is sized down. Most horse equipment can’t adjust small enough to safely fit on a pony’s body. Instead, you should purchase equipment specifically made for ponies – thankfully, virtually every item of horse equipment you can imagine is manufactured and available in sizes just for ponies.

The difference between horse and pony tack isn’t just sizing, often, products are specially designed to accommodate the unique confirmation of many ponies. Because pony breeds can vary widely in confirmation (for example the delicate Connemara pony versus the stocky and round Shetland pony) it may take a few tries before you are able to find the right equipment for your pony. A local tack store that does tack repair can often custom size or modify horse and pony tack to fit your specific horse or pony’s body.

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