Horse vs pony – what’s the difference?
If you’ve ever sat there and wondered, but never been brave enough to ask, what the difference is between a horse and a pony, you no longer need to worry. We’re here to help!
In short, horses and ponies are part of the same genetic family, ‘Equus’, with the main difference being their height.
Over the last 56 million years or so, there were centuries when different species of equid (a mammal in the horse family) lived at the same time. However, ancient equids looked very different. In fact, some equids had one foot, while others had three toes!
Early equids ranged from around cat-height to the height of a pony you might see today. However, modern members of the Equus family (horses, ponies, zebras, and donkeys) can be as small as 25 inches and as tall as 20hh (more than seven feet)!
How do you measure a horse or pony’s height?
Horses and ponies are measured in a unit called ‘hands’, recorded as ‘hh’ (hands high).
Dating back to ancient Egypt, the calculations used to determine a horse’s height became one of the first recorded systems of measurement! However, it was Henry VIII who suggested, in 1541, that a standard ‘hand’ was to equal four inches.
We measure a horse or pony’s height from the floor to their wither (that arch at the top of their shoulder/base of their neck), using a specially designed measuring stick or measuring tape. Ask your vet or local riding instructor for help if measuring your equine friend for the first time!
For example: If a horse is 16hh (64 inches at their wither), they’d be described as “sixteen hands-high”. Whereas if a pony is 14.1hh (56.4 inches at their wither) we’d say they are “fourteen-one hands-high” or “fourteen-one”.
As you might have already guessed, units of hands are counted in fourths:
- 15.0hh – “fifteen hands”.
- 15.1hh – “fifteen-one”.
- 15.2hh – “fifteen-two”.
- 15.3hh – “fifteen-three”.
- 16.0hh – “sixteen hands”.
In many equestrian competitions, height limits are listed in centimetres (e.g. 147cms = just over 14.2hh).
Visit Horse & Country’s Horse Height & Weight: A Guide to find out more.
Good to know: Generally, equines are called “ponies” up to a height of 14.2hh and “horses” are those taller than 14.2hh.
Is a foal a type of pony?
It makes sense to assume a foal is a type of pony because they’re small, but a foal is not necessarily a pony. Likewise, a stallion isn’t necessarily a big horse. So, what are the differences?
- Foal – a young (baby!) horse or pony under one year old (no-matter their height, type, or breed).
- Pony – measures below 14.2hh at maturity (around 6-7 years old).
- Horse – measures above 14.2hh at maturity (around 7-8 years old).
- Filly – female horse or pony under four years old.
- Colt – male horse or pony under four years old, who hasn’t been gelded (the ‘horsey’ term for neutered).
- Mare – female horse or pony over four years old.
- Stallion – male horse or pony over four years old, who hasn’t been gelded.
- Gelding – male horse or pony who has been gelded.
It is worth noting there’s a type of miniature horse (who measures up to 34 inches in height at the wither) who is considered a ‘horse’ instead of a ‘pony’.
Here are just some of the differences between today’s equines:
While it may be tough to tell apart a light horse who is 14.3hh and a heavier-set pony of 14.2hh, there are some other key features that can help…
- Long back in comparison to their height.
- Straighter shoulders (responsible for their ‘choppy’ trot!).
- Short cannon bones (a section of the lower leg, directly below the knee/hock).
- Small hooves.
- Back is more in proportion to the length of their legs than a pony’s.
- Shoulders have more of a slope (allowing for smooth movement).
- Longer cannon bones.
- Hooves are likely proportional to the width of their legs.
Every horse is unique, and each pony is an individual. So, there are many breeds (and crossbreeds) of horse and pony who will display different characteristics to what you might expect; for example, some heavy horses (such as the Ardennes from Belgium) have short, stocky legs like a pony, whereas the British Riding Pony shares several sleek characteristics with the Thoroughbred.
If you’ve ever met a Shetland, you’ll already know that little ponies usually have big personalities! On the flip side, big horses (such as Shires) tend to have a reputation for being gentle giants.
Although, it’s worth noting that you’re just as likely to meet a pony who acts like an angel and a horse who has a cheeky streak. Which is just another reason to love them!
Have you ever heard the phrase “eat like a horse”? Well, large horses need to eat a lot every day to stay healthy (up to 2% of their bodyweight in hay or haylage!). Eating plenty of food also provides large horses with the energy they need to perform well in whichever equestrian sport(s) they enjoy.
While all horses and ponies require plenty of forage in their diet, larger horses (e.g. the majestic Shire) need far more food than smaller ponies (like super cute Shetlands).
Ponies pretend they’re able to eat ample amounts of food, but they shouldn’t be allowed to overeat! Being overweight can put a pony (or horse) at greater risk of health problems such as laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), and breathing conditions.
The main reasons ponies shouldn’t eat as much as horses (even if they want to!) are their size and their workload. Ponies have naturally smaller stomachs and, in general, have lesser workloads than horses. However, it’s worth pointing out that some ponies work very hard (e.g. carriage driving ponies) and some horses may have a light workload (e.g. horses who hack once a week).
Equines should be fed according to their individual situation.
For specific advice about feeding your horse or pony, contact your vet.
So, there you have it – next time someone asks whether you know the difference between a horse and a pony, you can confidently say “yes”!