Growing up, I remember being glued to the TV or computer screen, watching the diminutive Lenamore soar around the biggest, baddest courses in the sport of eventing with Caroline Powell. Standing at only 15.2h (generously, it seemed), he embodied a fiery agility and tenacity that I hadn’t seen before - he was bigger than his body. (If you’ve no idea who I’m talking about, do yourself a favor and watch him in action.)
Perhaps it was Lenamore who sparked a fascination in me, but I’ve always been enthralled by the small and mighties of horse sport. But over the years, I, like many, was sucked into the world of show jumping and bigger horses - the tall, strapping warmbloods that we so often see paired with our favorite riders these days became my norm. I started to ask myself - why? Why are we all amazed by the feats of a smaller mount (see: the fan clubs of horses like Theodore O’Connor, Lenamore, and even the racing heroes of yesteryear like Seabiscuit) but then continue riding the massive warmblood? As riders, what makes us drawn to the taller, stouter horse, and is this a justified preference?
As a former groom, I'd argue that - although anecdotally - I've seen some examples that suggest breeders are trying to produce horses over a certain height to fulfill that demand. Equally smaller horses may be overlooked at a young age before they are able to prove their worth.
It seems to me like we are predisposed to think big horses are beautiful, powerful and more likely to be successful at their given jobs. We’ve all seen the many "horse wanted" adverts on Facebook which include the line, "no smaller than 16.2h." While for taller riders, this request is out of necessity, for those of us who are more vertically challenged, is a bigger horse really better?
Size: A Necessity or a Preference?
Out of curiosity, I worked with the NoelleFloyd.com team to put together a survey of their readers. My hunch was confirmed - 57% of respondents stated they prefer bigger. A variety of reasons were cited, including feeling more comfortable and secure, finding distances between fences easier, and simply having more power. “I feel more secure on a larger horse and more to ‘hold’ onto,” one reader said. “I also find that the larger I jump, larger horses find it easier and it is not as much of an effort.” Only two riders stated that it was because of their height that they simply required a taller horse to fill their leg.
“I believe that if they are good enough, they are big enough.”
Those in favour of smaller rides mentioned feeling more in control, the horse being easier to manoeuvre and easier to handle. One response read, “They give you the best feeling over a big fence as they try so hard for you.”
To learn more, I chatted with a woman of unique perspective, who could speak to both the riding and the biomechanical/soundness aspect of larger vs. smaller horses. Katie Preston is an equine vet and amateur event rider. She competes at five-star level with her top horse, Templar Justice, who stands at just 15.2hh. “I believe that if they are good enough, they are big enough,” she said. And for Katie, there are certain advantages to having a smaller horse. “Agility is high up on that list. With a little horse, what you compromise in stride length you tend to make up for in their ability to find their ‘fifth leg’ which is key in getting you out of a sticky situation.”
Small Horses with Big Legacies
Even long before horse sports existed as they today, small horses were making a historical impact many times their size. One might assume that the bold horses who galloped into battle would be tall but would it surprise you that Copenhagen (Wellington’s famous liver chestnut warhorse) was merely 15.0h and Napoleon’s Marengo was only 14.1hh. In modern equine sport, littler horses have proven time and again that they are capable of being mighty:
Stroller, the 14.1hh pony ridden by Marion Coakes-Mould, who won an Olympic Silver medal and the Hickstead Derby (!) and retired aged 21.
- Lenamore, who stands at 15.2h and was ridden by Caroline Powell. He won Burghley aged 17, had seven consecutive Badminton finishes, six consecutive Burghley finishes and an Olympic bronze medal, and he retired at the impressive age of 20.
“He was so naughty, but God, he was so special,” Caroline said in an interview with the Equiratings podcast. “He just loved jumping. I have a picture of him jumping the Cottesmore leap at Burghley, it must have been 2005, and I remember he took a stride out in front of it. He didn’t really see a vet his whole career, aside from his yearly checkup and vaccinations. I think one of the reasons he stayed sound for so long was because he was so sure of himself; he knew exactly where his feet were. He was an unbelievable little horse.”
- Cedric, 15.2h ridden by Laura Kraut, had 80 5* starts and won Olympic team Gold in Beijing before retiring aged 19.
“He jumped like a deer. He was so light (on his feet) you couldn’t feel him take off or land,” said Laura Kraut of her first rides on Cedric, in an interview with The Chronicle of the Horse.
- Theodore O’Connor, 14.1h, was ridden by Karen O’Conner and won both individual and team Pan American Games gold medals, as well as two Kentucky five-star completions placing 3rd and 6th respectively.
"He never stopped trying, he had immense scope for jumping and an amazing work ethic, and he was incredibly smart. He also had perfect conformation and was very sound,” said Max Corcoran, Teddy's groom.
Is Smaller Sounder?
We may consider the above horses to be anomalies or “freaks of nature”, but most of us will never jump around a five-star show jumping or eventing course. So, what does smaller mean for the average rider?
It might mean soundness and longevity - traits we all value in our horses. Science would also suggest that smaller horses have the upper hand. A 2009 study by Dr. Sue Dyson and Dr. Rachael Murray examined the risk factors of lameness in dressage horses and showed that (whilst there are many aspects involved) horses over 16.3h are 15% more likely than horses under 16h to develop lameness issues. In the same year another study focused on foot conformation and the competitive life of over 23,000 Dutch Warmbloods it showed taller horses had a shorter competitive life than smaller horses.
Horses over 16.3h are 15% more likely than horses under 16h to develop lameness issues.
Equine Biomechanics expert, Dr. Hilary Clayton, offered a similar opinion, explaining that the possibility that smaller horses have more longevity and soundness has to do with the proportions of supporting tissues: “As horses get taller, their body mass increases approximately in proportion to their height to the power 3 (height cubed), whereas the strength of their supporting tissues in the limbs increases only in proportion to their height to the power 2 (height squared). This means that the horse's weight increases disproportionately with the ability of the limbs to support that weight”. So, a taller horse does not always have the strength in these structures to withstand the forces applied, especially in sport and performance.
In eventing, which is perhaps the most physically taxing of all the disciplines in terms of endurance, the trend that we see nowadays is that taller horses tend to have a fair percentage of warmblood, making the long galloping cross country phase more difficult and potentially more dangerous in terms of lower limb injury. A warmblood will need to get closer to their maximum speed compared to the stamina and efficiency of the generally shorter and lighter pure Thoroughbred.
For now at least my hunch has been confirmed, little horses really can. I will certainly continue cheering on the feisty, compact horses at the top of their game. Perhaps if you have always ridden giants it is time to step away from the norms within each discipline and reflect on if you need that extra few hands. In most circumstances a smaller horse can be just as competitive and they may well be by your side for longer. After all sometimes the best presents come in small packages.
Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography. Inset photo by Michelle Dunn.