I have a long career working with horses and can tell immediately if I’m looking at a horse or pony. But to non-equestrians or beginners, knowing the differences isn’t always straightforward. In fact, many people think horses and ponies are the same.b
Horses and ponies are the same species and share many similarities, but there are many subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them. So, if you want a clear idea about the difference between the two – let’s dive right into Pony vs Horse: What’s the Difference?
Bottom Line Up Front
The main and most obvious difference between a horse and a pony is the height. We measure horses and ponies in hands (h), and a horse is an equine taller than 14.2h, while a pony is anything measuring below.
Pony vs Horse: What’s the Difference?
Horses and ponies are from the same species, Equus Caballus, but are different variations. Horses are tall, measuring over 14.2h, with a light structure, while ponies are small and heavy-set.
Horses and ponies share many traits, they look incredibly alike and have similar uses, but they are also distinctly different in several ways. They have contrasting physical characteristics, temperaments, and care needs.
To help you understand more about the difference between horses and ponies, I’ve broken them down into sections below:
Difference #1 – The Size
As we’ve established, we measure horses in hands, and a fully mature equine above 14.2h is a horse, and anything smaller is a pony. This doesn’t include foals, baby horses, and ponies, who are still growing.
Measuring in hands is the traditional way to measure a horse. One hand equals four inches, so 14.2h is 14h and 2 inches, or 56 inches. Europeans, excluding people from the UK, often measure horses in cm, so a 14.2h horse is 144.3 cm. I’m a traditionalist and always measure horses in hands.
You measure a horse from the feet up the withers. The withers are the raised area on the back where it joins the neck – a horse’s height doesn’t include the head and neck. I use a measuring stick or tape to measure horses, and for an accurate reading, I always ensure they stand on solid, flat ground when I take the measurement.
Difference #2 – Their Appearance
Many people think that all ponies are small and are often surprised if I call what they assume to be a horse – a pony. Large ponies look like horses because of their size, but their build and appearance say otherwise. Size aside, horses and ponies have very different physical characteristics.
Ponies are generally stockier than horses, with a wider chest and shorter legs. They have a thick neck, shorter ears and look more compact. Ponies often come from cold climates – and as a result, they have a thick coat with lots of mane and tail hair.
Horses generally have lighter bone structures than ponies, with longer, finer legs and a streamlined build. They have shorter coats and fine mane and tail hair. Overall, horses are taller, finer and look more elegant than short, stocky ponies.
The exceptions to this rule are draft horses. Draft horses are heavy-set working horses with thick joints and bones. They are large and powerful and often have the physical characteristics of ponies, i.e., a thick coat and compact body, but they usually stand over 15h high.
Difference #3 – Their Temperament
All horses have unique personalities, but generally speaking, horses and ponies also have different temperaments. In most cases, I find that ponies are strong-willed and independent, while horses are loyal and cooperative.
In my experience, ponies have much more character than horses – they are playful and can even be a bit cheeky. Ponies are intelligent and often challenge their owners, and in the worst cases, they can be downright stubborn and rebellious.
Not all ponies are uncooperative – and on the plus side, they are sturdy and incredibly forgiving with novices.
Horses, on the other hand, are generally more cooperative, predictable and easier to train than ponies. They are noble and dependable and are usually keen to please their owners. The drawback to a horse’s temperament is that they tend to be more spooky and flighty than ponies.
Difference #4 – Care
There is a big difference when it comes to pony vs horse care. Ponies are generally hardier than horses and easier to care for. That said, overfeeding is a common problem with ponies, and it can lead to severe health problems.
I find that with horses, I often worry if I’m feeding them enough, while with ponies, I worry about feeding them too much.
Most ponies are easy keepers, which means they are hardy and need less food. As I mentioned, they usually come from cold climates with harsh living conditions and can survive on very little forage. The result is that overfeeding can lead to obesity and chronic metabolic issues, such as laminitis or Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS).
Ponies are generally cheaper to keep because they eat less and are less susceptible to illnesses. They also have harder feet, are less prone to abscesses and usually don’t need shoes or hoof supplements.
Horses generally aren’t as tough as ponies – they are more prone to navicular and arthritis and often have more complex care needs. Especially purebred horses, such as the Friesian, which suffer from many genetic health conditions.
Difference #5 – Their Uses
A horse and pony have similar uses. They are both competent at all riding disciplines, including Western, dressage and jumping, but have separate categories in competitions due to their size and athletic differences. Some show classes, such as the working hunter pony, will allow ponies up to 15h to compete.
Horses are more athletic than ponies because of their slender build – they’re faster because of their long legs and are usually stronger due to their size. That said, ponies are incredibly powerful and can effortlessly pull carts.
Advanced riders tend to ride horses because they are forward going, agile, can jump higher and deal with more challenging courses. While ponies are nippy and nimble – many adults don’t like riding them because they are less forward going.
Ponies are more popular with children due to their size, but many adult riders like to ride large, laid-back ponies. Pony types are better on the trail than horses due to their sturdy nature and heavy build.
Should I Choose a Horse or Pony?
Buying an equine is a big commitment, and ponies and horses need extensive time, care, and financial investment. If you’re ready to invest in an equine friend, maybe you’re wondering if a horse or pony is better for your needs.
Most people think ponies are for children, but many adults ride large ponies. I prefer ponies with their flowing manes and colorful characters and always choose a large pony over a horse. That said, I enjoy trail riding and don’t partake in sports such as showjumping or dressage.
Ultimately, you should choose a horse or pony depending on your size, height, weight, riding needs and budget.
In summary, you should:
Choose a Horse if – You want to compete in advanced competitions such as dressage, eventing, and showjumping. Horses are generally more athletic than ponies, and most adult classes are for horses. You should also choose a horse if you want an easy life – horses are more cooperative and won’t push boundaries too much.
If you are tall or have a heavy build, select a horse over a pony because horses can usually carry more weight.
Choose a pony if – You prefer schooling and trail riding over sports events. Ponies are less forward going, flighty, and spooky than horses. Ponies are also a good option for beginners because they are hardy with fewer health problems.
You should choose a pony if you like equines with character. Ponies have fun, cheeky personalities but may challenge your authority.
What Are Miniature Horses?
Miniature horses, such as the Falabella, are another variation of the equine species and are different from ponies because of their size and build. Miniature horses stand less than 9.2h high and have the physical characteristics of a horse, such as a fine, delicate build and short, sleek coat.
Miniature ponies, such as the miniature Shetland, also measure less than 9.2h, but they have pony characteristics. Micro equines are super cute, and people keep them mostly for showing or as pets, not for riding. The fantastic thing about miniature horses is that people of all ages and physical abilities can handle them.
Exceptions to the Pony vs Horse Rule
When I began writing this article, I thought the answer to the pony vs horse question was pretty straightforward. But now, I can see that it’s not that obvious and why beginners and non-equestrians may be confused.
To highlight my point – there are many exceptions to the horse/pony rule, and the 14.2h cut-off point isn’t always applicable. Some pony breeds, such as the Fell and Connemara, are over 14.2h, while some horses, such as the Arabian, may stand below.
To clear things up, I’ve listed the exceptions to the horse/pony rules below:
- Polo Ponies – Horses that play polo, regardless of their size and breed, are traditionally called polo ponies.
- Miniature Horses – Miniature horses have characteristics of horses but are below 9.2h high. They are their own variation of the equine species.
- Draft Breeds – Draft horses have pony characteristics, such as hardiness, a stocky frame, and a thick coat, but they are usually over 15h high and are horses.
- The Arabian – Arabians are small horses and rarely stand more than 15.2h high. It’s common for Arabians to be under 14.2h, but they are still horses.
- Icelandic – The Icelandic horse has pony characteristics, including incredibly thick hair, and stands 13.2 -14.2h on average.
- Norwegian Fjord – The Fjord horse is incredibly strong and looks exactly like a pony. It’s short and stocky but rarely stands above 14.2h.
- Gypsy Vanner – The Gypsy Vanner is like a miniature draft horse and comes in sizes ranging from 12.2 – 16h. The ones under 14.2 are horses, even though they look like ponies.
- Haflinger – Haflingers are incredibly strong, heavy-set, hairy ponies but can be up to 15h high.
- Connemara – The Connemara is a sturdy Irish pony. The breed standard requires them to be under 14.2h, but they can grow up to 15.2h.
Answer: A pony will never become a horse. Ponies have distinct physical characteristics which separate them from horses. Even if a pony grows more than 14.2h high (the cut-off height for ponies), if it has pony features, it is still a pony and not a horse.
Answer: Yes, a pony and a horse can breed together. A large pony and a small horse would have no problem mating, but a small pony and a large horse may struggle. That said, there are many instances where small Shetland ponies have mated with large draft horses.
The pair may produce a horse or a pony, depending on which genes the foal inherits and its size when it’s fully mature.
Answer: A pony isn’t a little horse. Horses and ponies are incredibly similar, but a small equine measuring under 14.2h is a pony, not a little horse. Except in the case of miniature horses, which are tiny variations of the equine species and measure under 9.2h.
Ponies and horses look incredibly similar and have the same uses but differ in many ways. The main difference between horses and ponies is their height. A horse stands over 14.2h while a pony measures below.
It’s not just height that separates the two – horses and ponies have different care needs, temperaments, and physical attributes. Ponies are stocky and compact, independent and hardy, while horses are finely built, streamlined, and dependable.
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- Equus. (2019). Breed profile: Icelandic horse. Equus Magazine.
- Henry, M. (2023, May 17). Horses Vs Ponies: A Look At The Differences And Similarities.
- Horse height hh (hands) and cm (centimetres) conversion. (n.d.). Equine World UK.
- Lee, A. (2023). Horses, ponies and minis – differences in height. Helpful Horse Hints.
- Miniature Horses – Oklahoma State University. (2021, March 16).
- Nolan, G. (2019, January 16). Top 10 Facts about the Connemara Pony – Connemara Ponies. Connemara Ponies.
- Ultimateequine. (2018). Pony vs Horse – What’s the Difference? The Ultimate Equestrian.
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