The Difference Between Horses and Ponies: Complete Guide

How Horses and Ponies Are Different

With so many terms and phrases floating around the equestrian community, it can be hard to know what to call a horse. One of the greatest points of confusion involves horses and ponies. We are here to establish the truth once and for all. 

So, what is the difference between horses and ponies? There are many small factors and qualities that differentiate horses from ponies, however, the primary difference between the two is how tall they are. The term pony refers to equines that are under 14.2 hands tall. Horses, on the other hand, are over 14.2 hands tall. 

There are a few exceptions to this rule that we discuss later in this post. Outside of height, ponies and horses are the same animal. In fact, even two horses from the same set of parents could mature to be vastly different in height, qualifying one as a pony! 

In this post, we will look at the many minute differences between horses and ponies, providing you with everything you need to know to use the terminology correctly. Especially if you are just starting out on your equestrian journey, it is important to understand these differences to determine whether a horse or a pony is the best fit for your needs.

The Primary Differences Between Horses and Ponies

As we mentioned previously, the primary difference between horses and ponies is their height. However, there are many other, less significant qualities that set the two apart. It is important to note that while many of these are factual, such as size, and cost, most of these differences are simply stereotypes. As such, there are expected exceptions to every situation. 

Size Differences Between Horses and Ponies

The defining difference between horses and ponies is simply their size. According to many authorities on the matter, a pony is a horse that is 14.2hh or under. Horses, on the other hand, are 14.3hh or taller.

So, knowing that height is the defining characteristic between horses and ponies, how do you determine the true height of a horse? As you are well aware, horses are not measured using typical measurements. Instead of referring to a horse’s height in feet and inches, it is referred to in ‘hh’, or hands high. 

This measurement is taken from the highest point of the horse or ponies body, the withers, which are located between the shoulders at the base of the neck. One ‘hand’ is the equivalent of 4 inches. 

To measure the height of your horse, and determine whether they are truly a horse or a pony, have them stand square on flat ground. A horse’s height is commonly measured using a long ruler with a sliding attachment that can be easily lined up to the withers. 

In traditional terms of measurement, ponies are 14.2hh or approximately 58 inches and under. Horses are taller than 14.2hh or taller than 58 inches. 

Temperament Differences Between Horses and Ponies

Many equestrians, especially those who are new to the community, believe that ponies are more calm and docile and great for beginner riders rather than horses due to their smaller size. You should not be fooled to believe that this means they will automatically be calm. In fact, it is far more likely to be quite the opposite.

I’ve always preferred owning ponies to horses, but ponies also have a reputation for being stubborn and feisty. The breed of a horse and its genetics are far more likely to determine its temperament. If you are considering a pony for it’s “calm demeanor”, you are more likely to find a horse that fits within your ideals by researching calm horse breeds rather than size.

You can learn about some cool horse and pony breeds by reading my article Fantastic Horse Breeds and Where to Find Them.

Cost Differences Between Horses and Ponies

As a general rule, ponies are less expensive than horses. Outside of the initial cost of investment, ponies are also cheaper to keep as they require less feed and have fewer day-to-day costs associated with their care. 

Although this may be true in most cases, there are obvious exceptions. A pony that is calm, docile, and well-trained pony can go for a higher price. I find that many people are willing to spend good money to find a calm and trusting pony for their young rider. Once again, the breed of horse you are purchasing will impact the final cost of investment more than the height of the horse.

Did you know that there are many more costs associated with owning equines other than just their purchase price? You can get a complete rundown of the cost of owning a horse here.

Longevity Differences of Horses and Ponies

In the animal world as a whole, larger animals have a shorter lifespan than smaller animals. This is certainly true in the world of horses. Ponies tend to live longer lives than horses, even if they are used in the same capacity. Additionally, ponies are often able to be ridden much later into their lives as opposed to horses who may have to be retired early due to a variety of health problems.

Care Differences Between Horses and Ponies

In general, ponies require less feed than horses as a result of their smaller size. This can make them cheaper to care for. However, it is quite easy to overfeed a pony because of this, resulting in health conditions such as founder and laminitis. This is just one of the many reasons why it is important to determine whether your equine companion is truly a horse or a pony. 

As with any animal though, each horse will have different feed and nutrition requirements. It is important to take the time necessary to determine the unique needs of your horse or pony, regardless of their size.

Use Differences of Horses and Ponies

Horses and ponies are used for many of the same things. While the small size of ponies may be favored for younger riders, many times a well-mannered horse is a better equine companion for beginners. However, ponies are still used quite frequently for young riders or shorter adult riders. 

Both horses and ponies are appropriate for riding, pulling, or racing. The best use for a horse depends more heavily on its breed and abilities rather than its height.

Strength Differences of Horses and Ponies

Although horses are obviously able to carry a higher amount of weight due to their larger size, ponies are actually stronger when you consider their size. In general, ponies are able to carry more weight in relation to their size than horses can. This is most commonly attributed to their stocky, compact build. With heavier bones, tougher hooves, and shorter legs, ponies are made to carry loads that are quite large.

Health Differences of Horses and Ponies

Both horses and ponies are susceptible to the same types of illnesses and health conditions. However, ponies are more likely to develop health conditions such as Cushing’s and laminitis. Laminitis is especially more prevalent amongst ponies as it is more likely to develop in horses that are overweight – something that is common in ponies. 

Interestingly enough, many studies have been conducted to determine the healing ability of horses and ponies. These studies have found that, in general, ponies are able to heal more quickly than horses. This is likely attributed to the fact that they have more leukocytes, a key to fast healing.

Differences Between Horses and Ponies: Common Misconceptions

There are an increasing number of misconceptions regarding horses and ponies. Once you throw the term ‘foal’ into the mix, things just get more confusing! Let’s clear up some of these common misconceptions.

Ponies Are Just Young Horses

This is perhaps the most common misconception regarding ponies. Ponies are not just young horses. In fact, a horse’s height can not be accurately measured until they reach maturity, between the ages of five and seven years old. At this point, a horse can officially be assigned the title of horse or pony. There are many other accurate terms for a young horse including foal, colt, or filly, depending on the horse’s age and gender.

All Horses Under a Certain Height Are Referred to As Ponies

These exceptions to the rule of height are what makes this topic so confusing. Despite the clear distinction between horses and ponies based on height, there are taller ponies and shorter horses. Many of these exceptions are solely based on equine tradition and history. Arabian Horses, for example, may fall below the 14.2hh cut-off for ponies. However, they are always referred to as horses, even if they are below 14.2hh.

Miniature horses are another example. Perhaps the smallest member of the equine family is referred to as a horse, and never as a pony. Other exceptions to the rule include horses that are used for polo, which are always referred to as polo ponies, regardless of their height or stature. Another example is Icelandic horses. This horse breed usually falls under 14.2hh, but is always considered a horse.

Ponies Are an Entirely Different Animal Than Horses

Some people are even convinced that ponies and horses are different animals entirely! As we know, horses and ponies are members of the same species and even members of the same breed. The distinction between horses and ponies is based solely on height. 

Questions to Ask When Deciding Between a Horse & a Pony

Deciding what type of horse to invest in is a big decision. It is important that you approach this decision with care as it is a large investment. While many first-time equestrians are tempted to choose a pony as their first equine companion, this may not be the best fit. Here are just a few of the many questions you should ask yourself as you decide between a horse and a pony:

What Size Horse Or Pony Best Suits Your Needs?

As height is the greatest difference between horses and ponies, this should be the first thing you consider when making this decision. If you have experience riding horses, what size horse have you become comfortable riding? Riders who have trained on a full-sized horse are likely to find a smaller pony awkward and uncomfortable. On the other hand, riders who have solely ridden smaller ponies may be intimidated by a large horse. 

You must also consider weight in the equation. Regardless of the horse’s height, will they be able to comfortably support the weight of the rider plus any required tack? As a general rule of thumb, a horse’s or ponies’ withers must fall somewhere between your shoulder and the top of your head. However, you must also consider the fact that ponies, who are often more round in stature, take up more leg, and height may need to be adjusted in this equation.

Additionally, you must not assume that just because you are heavier, you need a full-size horse. In fact, the amount of weight that a horse can carry is not necessarily affected by the horse’s height. The strength of a horse is usually calculated using the measurement of the cannon bone of the leg. Because of this, there are many small ponies that can carry as much, if not more, weight than a full-sized horse.

Another misconception regarding size is that children should only ride ponies. This is not necessarily the case. Once again, you must determine what size horse the child is used to riding, as well as their height. Although ponies are often a great option for smaller riders, you should not rule out a full-sized horse for this reason.

If you’d like to know more about how to figure what size horse you need, check out my article What Size Horse Do I Need: Beginner’s Guide.

How Much Experience Do You Have With Horses and Ponies?

A common misconception about ponies is that they are more calm, docile, and easier to train than full-sized horses. This is not necessarily the case! In fact, many ponies are much more intelligent, and because of this, more stubborn, than horses. When choosing between a horse and a pony, it is important to consider the amount of experience you have with horses. You must be willing and able to train and easily handle your new equine companion. 

As you can see, there is great confusion surrounding whether a horse is technically a horse or a pony. The greatest, and most important is that the distinction between the two is simply height. While there may be other differences, many of them are simply stereotypes and should not be used to define these terms. 

If you want to know how tall your horse is, you’re going to need to be able to measure its height. To learn more, check out my article How to Measure a Horse’s Height (Step-By-Step With Pictures).


P.S. Save this article to your “Horses” board!

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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