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My granddaughter labels every pony a baby horse; when I correct her, she always asks, “what the difference.” So I decided to provide a thorough answer for her and anyone else interested in knowing the differences between horses and ponies.
There are numerous differences between ponies and horses; ponies can’t be taller than 14.2 hands, but horses can; ponies have thick coats, manes, and tails, while horses’ hair is more delicate. Ponies are easy keepers and have broad chests and short heads, and horses are more fragile and refined.
Ponies and horses are members of the Equus caballus species, so they have a lot in common. But there are some significant differences between ponies and horses as well.
The difference between ponies and horses.
|Height||Over 14.2||Under 14.2|
|Coat and Hair||Fine||Coarse, thick coat, and thick mane, and tail|
|Head and Neck||Long head and neck with large ears and eyes||Short head and neck with large eyes and tiny ears|
|Body||Proportionate||Stocky, and broad, round chest|
|Legs||Long||Short legs with hardy hooves|
|Feeding||Varies by breed||Easy keepers|
|Bone||Varies by breed||Thick, dense bones|
|Temperament||Varies by breed||Intelligent, friendly, but can be cunning|
|Origins||Varies by breed||Cold European Climates|
The most apparent differences between ponies and horses are their height. The standard rule is under 14.2 hands, and the equine is a pony, over 14.2, and the animal is a horse, but in reality, it’s not that simple.
Horses, on average, stand 15.2 hands tall. These are tall animals, some draft breeds such as the Shire exceed 18 hands. But not all horse breeds are tall; some are relatively short, like the Icelandic breed, which averages below 14 hands.
Likewise, some pony breeds exceed 14.2 hands. Why some short equine species are classified as horses while tall pony breeds are not horses varies, but it’s likely due to the animal’s build and use.
Hair: Coat, Mane, and Tail
A difference between ponies and horses are the thickness of their coats, and coarseness of their hair. Most pony breeds originate from cold climates areas with rough terrains.
Through the evolutionary process, they developed thick hair and coats that insulate them and keep them warm even in frigid climates. Ponies manes and tail grow long, thick, and coarse.
This hair provides another layer of protection against harsh weather. Horses, manes, and tails are typically much finer. A ponies coat is relatively thick year-round but adds extra protection during cold seasons.
Most horses, on the other hand, have thin coats in the summer and only grow denser hair during cold seasons. Some horses don’t develop hair thick enough to protect against frigid weather adequately.
Thin coats are especially prevalent in breeds that originate in warm climates, such as the Arabian and Akhil Teke’s. Not all horse breeds have fine coats, draft breeds such as the Clydesdale and Shire have thick coats, tails, and manes.
But like the pony breeds, they also originate in cold weather areas. There are also pony breeds with fine coats and hair, much like horses.
Conformation describes the primary bone and muscle structures of an animal. It typically refers to bone length, thickness, joint angles, and overall equine balance.
Ponies and horses have different conformations. Different breeds of ponies and horses vary, but the differences between these two equines are fundamental.
Ponies may not look as graceful as horses, but their body has incredible pulling power. Ponies can pull loads of great weight, and some can even haul as much as large draft horses.
Ponies have a round barrel chest with a broad, sprung rib cage. They are also short-bodied. In proportion, horses have a much leaner and gracefully built torso. Even giant draft breeds don’t display the thickness of a pony.
Ponies and horses heads differ, a pony has a short head with large eyes and tiny ears. Horses, in comparison, have large heads with wide nostrils and large ears.
Horses have long, lean legs with proportionate cannon bones and thin hooves. Ponies’ legs are short but powerful, and they also have strong, durable hooves. Some horse breeds are prone to hoof disease.
Thoroughbreds are notorious for bad feet. They’ve been selectively bred for speed without regard to their feet. This has resulted in many horses with paper-thin hooves.
Ponies and horses have different bone density. Ponies generally have denser bones than horses. A study comparing bones from ponies to Thoroughbreds found the relative density of most bones was greater in ponies.
The test is limited to one horse breed, but it gives us at least one scientific sample to confirm our theory. Regardless of density, ponies have thick bones relative to their size.
Ponies and horses have different dietary needs; however, anatomically, they are similar. A study on the digestion rates of equines found ponies and horses processed food at similar rates.
Both ponies and horses eat grass, hay, and grain. However, a pony typically requires only a small percentage of the protein and minerals that horses need. A ponies can thrive on a daily ration of forage equal to 2% of body weight.
Horses require higher quantities of protein and more minerals than a pony to maintain their health. Pony breeds evolved in harsh environments with minimal forage. These conditions led to ponies’ ability to survive on low-quality forage, and thick coats to fend off the cold.
Ponies are easy keepers and put on weight without much effort, so it’s easy for them to become obese. Obesity in ponies is a problem that often leads to equine metabolic syndrome, laminitis, and insulin resistance.
Ponies and horses have different temperaments. Ponies are generally smart across all breeds, and the same can’t be said about horses, although there are plenty of intelligent horses.
Ponies intelligence can be a good or bad trait. With proper training, ponies are exceptional animals. They make great equines for beginner riders and are an outstanding addition to most farms. But when given too much latitude, they are terrors.
Because these small animals are smart, they test their owners and are frequently stubborn. Horses are not as easy to generalize; each breed exhibits distinct personality traits.
Hot blooded breeds, like Arabians and Thoroughbred, are intelligent and high strung, whereas cold-blooded draft breeds are typically calm and friendly.
Pony or Horse? Equines that Don’t Fit the Stereotype
Ponies and horses are equines with similar attributes. For some breeds, it’s difficult to distinguish if they are a pony or a horse because the animals fit the requirements of both classifications.
Some horse breeds resemble ponies, and some pony breeds have characteristics consistent with horses. The final word on if an animal is a “horse” or “pony” is left to the respective breed registries.
Here are some breeds that fall into the gray zone and could be either horse or pony.
Icelandic horse breed (Under 14.2)
The Icelandic horse breed average height is 13.5 hands, and we know that ponies are under 14.2 hands. So why are Icelandic horses not ponies? The answer isn’t clear.
But the Icelandic people absolutely consider their breed is a horse and not ponies. In support of their position, they urge the equines’ genetic makeup, intelligence, and strength, which they say all point to these animals being horses.
Scandinavian Vikings introduced the ancestors to the present-day Icelandic horses to the island. Genetic testing of the breed links them to Mongolian horses, and also reveals ties to pony breeds such as the Shetland, Highland and Connemara ponies,
Icelandic horses are unique. For one thing, they are likely the purest breed in the world. Over a thousand years ago, the government restricted the importation of horses to the island, thereby limiting breeding to only the horses on the island.
Icelandic horses have five gaits. Walk, trot, gallop, which are standard in all horse breeds, but they also have two more speeds, tolt, and flying pace. Horses executing these different gaits at expert levels is highly desired.
Similarities with pony breeds
The Icelandic horse breed is hardy, and they live a long time. It’s common for these small horses to live to be in their 40s, and some live more than 50 years.
The Icelandic horse is spirited with a gentle temperament and is not easily spooked. Iceland doesn’t have natural equine predators; because of this, the animals have a calm demeanor and are approachable. The attributes of Icelandic’s are seen in ponies and horses.
Fjord horse (under 14.2)
The Fjord horse is a small ancient horse breed from Norway, where they have resided for over 4,000 years. Fjords range in size from 13.2 to 14.2 hands, with few outliers.
Fjords are versatile horses that make good draft horses and riding horses. They have a few unique features. All modern Fjords have the Stallion Njal 166 in their pedigree, and he was born in 1891.
Ninety percent of all Fjord horses are dun, and most have thick upright manes. Another exciting feature is they exhibit primitive markings, and their manes have a dark center line resembling a stripe.
Traditionally owners of Fjord horses clip their manes, which makes it easier to care for but also exposes their distinct stripe.
It’s not only their short stature that Fjords’ have in common with ponies.
The Fjord horse has a thick coat that protects against the rough winters in the cold mountainous regions of Norway. The texture and thickness of their hair resemble a ponies, it’s thick and their mane and tail long and coarse.
Much like a pony, the Fjord horses are hardy, strong, and easy keepers. They have the build of a draft breed but are much shorter than standard draft horses.
Their bones are thick and body compact, they also have superior strength considering their small stature. Features found in many pony breeds.
Fjords, like ponies, are “easy keepers.” They gain weight quickly and thrive on relatively little food. They are also prone to develop obesity-related metabolic problems if overfed, such as colic and laminitis.
I can’t fully grasp the reason Fjord horses aren’t Fjord ponies. They meet more of the characteristics of a pony than a horse. But attributes of both ponies and horses are present in Fjord horses.
Haflinger Horse Breed (under 14.2)
Haflingers are a versatile horse breed used for pulling carts, endurance riding, and even dressage. They typically stand between 13 and 15 hands tall.
Similarities with ponies
Besides their small stature, Haflingers share other characteristics with their pony cousins. They typically have thick coats and long manes and tails. They originated in the colder climates in the region of upper Italy and Austria.
They are also powerful, and these small animals have no problem carrying a full-sized rider or a loaded wagon with ease. Haflingers are intelligent and similar to a pony; they act stubbornly and become challenging to work when guided by an inexperienced hand.
The difference between a Haflinger and a pony is their conformation. A Haflinger exudes proportion and strides in rhythm while displaying good power from their hindquarters.
Add their movement to the Haflinger color, and it has the looks of a horse. (All Haflingers have chestnut coats with flaxen mane and tails.) Traits of ponies and horses are in Haflinger horses.
Gypsy Vanner (under 14.2)
Gypsy Vanners are a small equine draft breed, just like many pony breeds. They span in height from 12.2 to 16 hands with an average of the breed standing 14.2 hands tall. Because of the size differences, the horses are divided into three categories.
Horses under 13 hands are called minis, horses up to 15 hands are considered classics Gypsy Vanners and horses over 15 hands are called grand sized Gypsy Vanners.
The Gypsy Vanner originated in Ireland and was refined by European Gypsies. These unique horses are also called Irish Cob, and Gypsy Cob. But regardless of their name, they are beautiful and reliable horses.
Other than their small size, the Gypsy Vanner has a thick coat similar to many pony breeds. They also have a gentle, cooperative temperament and are intelligent.
The Vanners are strong and work well as a small draft breed primarily used to pull small wagons called a vardo. The vardo was the Gypsies home and contained all their possessions.
These horses were not only a working animal but an integral part of the Gypsies family. Features of ponies and horses are visible in Gypsy Vanners.
Gypsy Vanners have the look of horses; their necks are long and hold their head high. Their bodies are in proportion and level from withers to tail poll. Overall they are well balanced and present harmonious blending of muscle and bone.
Yakutian Horse (under 14.2 hands)
The Yakutian horse looks like a short, thick, and furry stuffed animal. The average height of a Yakutian horse is 13 hands, which is below the size of a standard horse. They can survive without shelter, the frigid climates of Siberia, where temperatures reach -95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Yakutian horses have the outward appearance of a pony. They are short and have thick, sturdy statures. Also, their neck is short and straight again, like many pony breeds.
Yakutia’s grow thick winter coats and long manes and tails to protect against the freezing temperatures of their homeland where winters can last eight months. Some of the hair of their coat extends three inches in length.
Yakutian horses are hardy and used to pull sleighs filled with ice. They are also “easy keepers” and can survive on minimal forage. They are known to find grass buried under deep snow with their exceptional sense of smell. In the harshest winters, the diet is supplemented with feed by the local Sakha people.
The Yakutia horse gives back to the local people by providing milk and as a source of meat. The Sakha people use the horse’s hides and hair to make and decorate clothing. Although they look like a pony, the Yakutia has traits of ponies and horses.
Hackney ponies are shorter than 14.2, but they look like a horse. They don’t have thick bones, nor do they have thick coats. In the following picture, the animal looks like a small horse.
The Hackney pony was initially developed to pull small carriages. They originate from a cross between a Hackney sire and a Fell mare. The breed registry emphasizes that the ponies not exceed 14.2 hands and maintain pony characteristics.
Hackney ponies have a vibrant show competition. These ponies compete in harness and saddle competitions. However, the emphasis seems to be on harness.
They have six divisions of harness exhibition, including pleasure driving, roadster, and cob tail. Each year they hold their world’s championship competition at Kentucky’s state fair.
Maybe because of the emphasis on speed and showing these animals, they’ve lost the look of a pony. Besides the healthy hooves and a small head, there are not many pony characteristics remaining in the breed.
The Welara pony breed was established in the United States in 1981. However, the breed originates in England from crossbreeding Arabian horses and Welsh ponies.
They are palomino ponies that range from 11.2 hands to 15 hands tall. They have refined bones, thin coats, and lean bodies, more reflective of their Arabian ancestors than their thicker Welsh relatives.
Overall, these ponies, like the Hackney ponies, resembles a horse more than a pony.
The average Camargue horses are under 14.2 hands tall. This breed is roots trace back to ancient France, where they lived in the wild marshes and wetlands.
These small hardy horses always have a gray coat color and black skin.
Much like a pony, the Camargue horse is powerful in relation to its size. They have a compact build, with strong limbs, a short neck, and a deep rounded chest They can easily carry grown adults.
The animals have large bones, small ears, and strong hooves like many pony breeds. They are also brilliant and not patient with inexperienced handlers.
The Camargue horse has long legs and a proportionate body. Their backs are medium length, and they have well-muscled hindquarters. Besides the small ears, their head resembles a horse.
The Camargue could pass for either species of equine; it has characteristics of both ponies and horses.
Konik horse (under 14.2)
Konik horses are an ancient breed from southeast Poland; however, their ancestry isn’t apparent. But what is even muddier is whether they are a pony or horse. Konik’s display traits of ponies and horses.
These equines have a stocky build, with a deep barrel type chest. Their heads are small, and they have thick coats with long coarse manes and tails. The typical Konik horse is between 12.3 and 13.3 hands tall.
They are strong for their size and are often used a draft horse. These horses fit the mold of a pony, so why are they considered a horse? My only guess is because the breed registry didn’t want to label them as ponies.
Appaloosa horses are often called Indian ponies. However, most are over 14.2 hands tall and have characteristics that align it with horses. The use of Indian pony is just slang and not related to actual breed characteristics.
Appaloosa has a colorful spotted coat pattern that makes it easy to distinguish. It’s difficult to gauge how long they’ve been in existence precisely, but depictions of them were etched in the walls of caves in France during the stone age.
Modern Appaloosa horses originate from the Nez Perez tribe in the northwestern United States. The Native American tribe selectively bred horses to obtain traits they treasured, color, stamina, and sturdiness, the final result is the Appaloosa horse.
Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses
Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses are short horses but don’t resemble ponies. As you can see from the picture above, they look like a horse. They have light bones and finer coats than most pony breeds.
Besides their similar height to ponies, the only other common trait is that Kentucky Mountain Saddle horses are “easy keepers.”
To register a Kentucky Mountain Horse, it must be above 11 hands tall. Horses over 14.2 are categorized as Class A horses, and ones between 11 and 14.2 hands are considered Class B horses.
The breed is related to the Tennessee Walking horse and is gaited. They were developed to work on farms and as comfortable riding horses for transportation. They are sure-footed horses and are primarily used for pleasure riding.
Popular Pony Breeds
Shetland ponies originated from the harsh Shetland islands off the northern coast of Scotland. It’s a frigid rugged island. They may only have three months of the year frost-free.
Shetland ponies roots run deep on the islands, there’s evidence of their existence going back four thousand years. In the mid-1800s, the island ponies began to be used in British coal mines.
These animals were ideally suited for the tasks, and they were small enough to easily navigate tunnels yet strong enough to pull carts burdened with heavy loads coal.
Today Shetland ponies are popular first mounts for children. They range in height from 7 hands to 11 hands tall. The most common size is ten hands.
Welsh ponies come in many different shapes and sizes. Some are taller than 14.2 hands, and others may be close to 11 hands tall. The differences can also be seen in the density of their coats. The following three pictures are of Welsh ponies/cobs
Because of the disparity of the animals, they are divided into classes within the breed. These classes are primarily sorted by height, and called either Welsh ponies or Welsh Cob horses.
Welsh ponies roots are in Wales, where they’ve lived since 1600 BC. The native ponies were crossbred to Arabian, Thoroughbreds, and Hackney horse in the Middle Ages to create the Welsh cobs.
They’ve been productive in many equine activities because of their various sizes, including trail riding, show jumping, and farm work.
The Connemara pony is excellent for trail riding. The typical connemara stands between 12.2 and 14.2 hands tall. Although small, they are robust and surefooted enough to carry full-sized adult riders with ease.
The early Connemara ponies were hybrid offsprings of Spanish horses and local Irish mares. However, today’s ponies likely include Arabian, Thoroughbred, and Hackney bloodlines. (https://www.acps.org/)
Fell ponies vary in height from 13 hands to 14 hands tall. They are a versatile breed that originates from northern England. The Fell pony, like many other pony breeds, is known for its strength sure-footedness and endurance.
Pony of the Americas
The Pony of the Americas (POA) is a pony breed that originated in the U.S. in 1954. The foundation stud was the offspring of a cross between a Shetland pony stallion and an Arabian/Appaloosa mare.
The Pony of the Americas breed registry limits pony heights to between 11.5 and 14 hands tall. Another breed requirement is coloring; they must have an Appaloosa pattern that can be distinguished from 40 feet.
Ponies and horses are members of Equus caballus species, and have a lot of common traits. The breed registries decide if an animal should be classified as a pony or a horse. Classification is not always based on height of the equine.