Of Course a Horse (Big Isn't Better) by Don Blazer
Big, big, big. Phooey!
What's this preoccupation with big horses?
"I want a big horse," says the dude. "Why?" asks the cowboy. "I don't know," says the dude, "I've always looked up to 'em."
Does this silliness come from the misconceived, but familiar phrase, "A good horse is better than a good little horse?"
Big isn't better. By definition, big is "large." Better is "more desirable, more useful, of superior quality." But better isn't big unless you desire something exclusively for its size.
Let's look at horses for what they are as individuals, both big and little.
Does a big horse carry weight better? Not necessarily. The ability to carry weight is controlled by a number of factors, including length and conformation of the spine, muscle system, conformation and soundness of legs and feet.
It's the little burro who usually gets stuck with packing the baggage.
Can a big horse run faster than a smaller one? No. It's been proven scientifically that it's not the length of stride which determines speed, but the individual horse's ability to retract his stride. The horse extends the leg in forward motion, but just before putting his foot on the ground he retracts it. It's not how quickly he picks them up; it's how quickly he puts them down.
Is the big horse healthier? No. Rapid growth and excessive size contribute significantly to all of the unsoundness caused by concussion.
How do you determine the size of a horse? Most references and horsemen use the standard of 14.2 hands as the division between horses and ponies. A "hand" measures 4 inches, so a 14.2 hand horse is 58 inches at the withers.
Today a 14.2 hand horse is considered to be small and just about every serious horseman, no matter what the breed he prefers will tell you, "I like 'em big."
It's even true with pony people. Show records at least on the West Coast, indicate larger ponies usually come out on top in halter classes when height classification lines are crossed. Yet there is nothing to prove good conformation is granted by height.
Let's look at the past, the time when horses really had to work.
The knights in their shining armor rode big horses. But the days of the knights were short lived. Unless the dragon stood still or the enemy knight rode straight at you, you were bound to get into trouble. It's true the big horses carried a lot of weight then, and later, but it's also true they didn't do it very well.
Sir Walter Gilbey wrote a book entitled, "Small horses in Warfare." In it, he cited example after example of how horses 13.2 to 14.3, out- performed big horses in nearly every endeavor.
He wrote that during the Crimean War, horses-all under 14.3- ridden by Armenian and Bashi Bazouks, consistently performed, "beyond the capabilities of the English Thoroughbred cavalry." Gibley also told the marches of the British regiment in Sudan, in which the 14 hand horses were "marvels of endurance."
D. Peschkof, a Cossack, left Blagovestchensk, Siberia, in November of 1889. He and his tack weighted 180 pounds, but he rode his pony, which was only 12.3 hands, 5,478 miles in 193 days. The pony, named Seri, crossed Siberia in the winter and averaged 37 miles per day. Incredible!
So, if big horses aren't more durable, quicker, healthier, or better weight carriers, what are they?
They are good at pulling. There's no doubt that when it comes to hauling cannons, combines or heavy wagons, big horses are best. But there are exceptions.
Justin Morgan was only 14 hands, yet he out trotted, out ran and out pulled horses much larger than himself. In addition, he founded a breed, an accomplishment that no big horse has achieved. Actually, all draft horses are descendants of the Tundra Pony, heavily muscled and standing about 13.2 hands.
Big isn't better. It's just a fad. Unfortunately, there are a lot of little horses being overlooked for the worst reason of all. The looker knows big, but not better.
I Ride Ponies
The sorrel stallion charged down the runway and slid to a stop with the rails of the auction pit only inches from his nose. With eyes wide-open and nostrils flaring, he tossed his head and threw his flowing mane to the side. He eyed the audience, stomped, snorted and then did something that I did not know horses could do—he seemed to propel himself straight up, turn himself in the air, land, and tear back up that same runway at top speed. He disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. He was, then he was not—there was nothing in between.
This little stallion was the first moving mustang I had ever seen. I have been around horses all my life but I have never observed such athletic ability. A few hours earlier, I watched an experienced mustang gentler lead this young stud around the ring only minutes after he was first roped. Surely he would sell quite high in the ensuing Bureau of Land Management wild horse auction.
He did not sell high. He did not sell at all. No one even bid on him. For all his ability, for all his willingness to learn, for all his stunning beauty, he was not a horse. He was a pony and modern American adults do not ride ponies.
I ride ponies and I am an adult. I ride ponies and I am a large adult. I ride ponies and I ride them long and hard. I have ridden Holland, a 13 hand Shackleford, fifty miles in a day on several occassions.
I ride because they give me what I want, which is to ride for hours on end on woods trails with my family. I have no need to pull a beer wagon. I do not fox hunt. I will never ride in the Kentucky Derby. In short, I do nothing with my ponies that would require me to feed an extra 400 pounds and two hands of horseflesh. My Indian Horses range from about 13.1 to 14.2 hands. They have heavy bones and iron-hard hooves. I doubt if any of them weigh over nine hundred pounds. Each carries my two hundred pound frame with grace and ease.
I ride ponies because they are healthy, easy keepers. My Indian Horses do not need grain. Indeed, it often takes quite a while before a mustang will even try the taste of grain. They live wonderfully on grass and hay. With the help of mineral supplement, they grow tough, dense hooves that have yet to require a shoe.
I ride ponies because they are easier to handle than tall heavy horses. I do not need a cherry picker to saddle up. I do not need an elevator to mount up. When I fall off, I only have a short descent to make. When they step on my feet, I do not end up lame.
Even with all these advantages, I am still asked why I ride those poor little things that are, after all, “only ponies.” Americans love big things. We are the only nation that feels the need to super-size a meal containing a three-layered hamburger. We drive SUV’s and root for 7ft tall basketball players and 300-pound football players. To make matters worse, children often start out on ponies and then graduate to horses. Ponies are viewed as the equine equivalent of training pants and horses, especially big horses, are the big boy pants of the properly potty-trained equestrian. Many riders are self-conscious of their own weight problems and feel that they call attention to their weight by riding the smaller equines. Worst of all, many riders are simply unaware of the carrying capacity of a well-built, well-conditioned pony. I will never forget being told by a woman with life-long equestrian experience that my 14-hand Indian Horse could never carry her because he was “just a pony.” She looked to weigh about fifty pounds less than me.
Not all cultures have shared our silly prejudices against ponies. Gall was one of the top four leaders of the Sioux and Cheyenne forces at the Little Big Horn. As a young man, he weighed around 240 pounds. When Custer’s men looked up to see Gall riding over the hill to them they did not see him astride a Clydesdale. Nor was he even riding a Warm-blood. Like all the victorious warriors on that day, he rode in on a mustang, likely one that was “just a pony.”
Aside from all of their other advantages, I ride ponies because of the sense of history that they project. I ride ponies because DeSoto invaded America on ponies. I ride ponies because Crazy Horse defended his America on ponies. I ride ponies because there was a Pony Express but there never was a Horse Express. I ride ponies because Quannah Parker lived on a pony and I ride ponies because Roman Nose died on a pony.
I ride ponies because heart is not measured in hands.
(This brief essay is an excerpt from my book, And A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Learning From Wild Horses and Small Children)
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