When it comes to selecting a horse that fits you as a rider, there is an ideal size and shape (this is a good thing – how many ideals do we get in life?).
The corollary to this, which is easily overlooked when we’re ready to fall in love with a horse of our own, is that the further away you deviate from that ideal, the less suitable a particular horse will be for you. (And the less you may enjoy riding, but more on that later in this post.)
Just as a horse that “fits into a box” always looks attractive, so a rider and horse whose bodies fit each other are always appealing to the eye.
Picture the slender, elegant hunter rider on the typey Thoroughbred, with her legs truly wrapping around her horse. Or the barrel-chested Master of Foxhounds on the field hunter with “good bone.” And then there are children on ponies — small, medium and large to suit. It’s an incontrovertible fact that very small children, who are already very cute, become even cuter when sitting on Shetlands.
If you’re lucky enough to be perfectly matched with a horse in terms of size and shape, chances are you’ll just look right together. If you’re competitive, don’t discount this potential advantage, because judging is subjective and most judges aren’t immune to the charms of suitability, whether consciously or not.
Naturally, suitability of size and shape is only one factor among many to evaluate and consider when we’re looking for a horse to buy. So we need to know where we can compromise on the issue, in the event that this is where we must (or opt to) compromise. We need to know just how short or how tall our horse can be before height alone makes a horse unsuitable for us, regardless of how many other things may be right.
Everyone has seen riders mounted on horses that are too tall or too stout or too small or too slight for their riders, and everyone knows that a serious mismatch doesn’t make a pretty picture. Of course, if making a pretty picture were the only concern, riders without vanity and with little concern for ribbons would never consider size and shape at all.
But it’s not just about a pretty picture. It’s also about comfort and, by extension, effectiveness. Form follows function here just as it did in the Bauhaus. When the rider’s leg drapes around the horse, with the knee no higher than the widest part of the horse’s barrel, the rider can use his leg most effectively. Certainly, gifted riders can push the boundaries, but if you are riding at the Spanish Riding School or an ex-Olympian, you don’t need my advice (you already have a Lippizan or you have Jane F. Clark).
Size and shape must be evaluated simultaneously. So when you’re horse shopping, you’ll want to set your limits on height — both low and high — only after taking into account the shape of the horse’s barrel (the shoulders of a base wide horse can also make a difference).
A 15.1h Morgan with a large girth might fit you as well as a 16.2h slab-sided Thoroughbred. So don’t discount a horse that’s taller or smaller than you might think appropriate. But be prepared to ask the seller questions about shape. And then remember that you’re hearing the answer from a seller who may tailor it to your wishes.
Here’s one of my caveats for horse shopping: Set your guidelines for height in your search and don’t look beyond them.
Here’s another: Be ready to cross a horse off your list if he’s not going to fit you.
If you don’t, you may be signing up for a relationship of frustration, or even worse, physical pain. If you don’t want to train your horse to be “hot off the leg” and responsive to a slight forward roll of your calf, you might not want your calf to be the only point of contact between your horse and your lower leg. If you don’t want to ride with spurs but your legs hang below your horse’s belly, even the longest swan necked spur won’t help you unless you want to be aiding with a knee bent at nearly 45 degrees (which I’d advise against, Ulla Salzgeber’s one tempis notwithstanding).
How do you know how wide is too wide? Depending on your physical makeup, there is a range of motion in your hip joint that is independent of how much yoga or Pilates you do. It’s just what you’re born with, but your range of motion may become more limited as you get older or due to injury or wear — you may have torn cartilage, arthritis, bone spurs and more.
I have a friend who is a physical therapist and medical researcher who specializes in equestrians, and he has devised tests and measurements that predict the allowable width of a horse dependent on a rider’s body and saddle. When would I consult with him? Only when all the stars align except size and shape.
Too wide isn’t the only problem. A horse that’s too narrow can be just as uncomfortable to ride. Although this is a less common problem, a tall rider doesn’t need to feel as if she’s sitting on the short side of a 2×4, no matter how supple that 2×4 might be and how comfortable for another rider.
When you sit on a horse you’re considering owning, you should feel comfortable right off the bat, as if you could spend all day just sitting on that horse. If you don’t feel comfortable just sitting, you will only feel more uncomfortable the further you progress (or try to). So if you get on and you’re not comfortable for whatever reason, it’s definitely time to keep shopping.
One more thing — while you’re looking for horses that fit you, remember that one person’s 15.1h horse is another person’s 14.3h horse. This becomes quite important when the number of hands relates to large ponies, and that pony you’re looking at is said to mature to 14.2h (don’t bet on it).
In recent years, bigger has become better (despite the fact that for many years and in the opinion of many of the world’s greatest riders, 15.3h was the ideal size for a horse), so horse’s sizes have steadily become inflated. The horse advertised today as 16.3 may, in fact, be no more than 15.3. Really. It’s true. So don’t hesitate to look at a horse that’s bigger than your criteria, because it might be right in height.
Most sellers don’t have a stick; they’re guestimating. And then, there are those sellers who are advertising the 15.4h horse. Don’t let that stop you. That odd-sized horse might be the perfect horse for you.