For many young riders, ponies are the first point of contact with the equestrian world. Ponies are great for beginners as they are less intimidating than horses and can be good-natured and reliable if well trained.
The word “pony” actually originated from the old French word “poulenet”, meaning foal. While horses and ponies belong to the same species (Equus ferus caballus), they differ greatly in both appearance and temperament.
Due to modern breeding, there are now over 200 pony breeds in the world. Many of them originated in harsh northern climates or mountainous regions, while others developed from the crosses of existing horse and pony breeds. Intelligent and friendly, ponies can become great mounts or companions in the right hands.
Here are eleven interesting facts about ponies!
1. Ponies share ancestry with draft horses
Most sources agree that ponies originally developed from horses of the “draft” subtype that used to be common in Northern Europe. Due to the harsh climate and scarce food supply, the ancestors of modern ponies became smaller and smaller, eventually forming a new type of equine.
One theory even suggested that ponies descend from “draft” subspecies of Equus ferus, the original wild horse. However, genetic studies have now disproven this theory.
Throughout history, ponies have proven useful in various roles. These tough and surefooted little equines were ideal for pulling carts and carrying heavy goods on rugged terrain. Small farmers also preferred them to draft horses as they were cheaper to keep yet powerful enough for agricultural work.
As equestrian sports gained popularity, more and more pony breeds were developed for children and small adults. When creating a new pony breed, breeders often used Arabian blood to add refinement and athleticism. The Welsh Pony, for example, had significant Arabian influence over its history.
2. All Ponies Are Under 14.2 Hands (148 Cm) Tall
The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) draws the line between horses and ponies at 14.2 hands or 148 cm. If the horse has shoes on, the cutoff point is at 14.25 hands or 149 cm. However, most competitions allow for a 0.5 hand or 1 cm margin.
With that being said, some pony breeds mature over this height, while some horse breeds are consistently under. This might seem confusing at first, but we will elaborate on it later on in the article.
To further complicate matters, some countries have different rules. In Australia, for example, they call horses between 14 and 15 hands “galloways”, and ponies must be under 14 hands (142 cm) tall.
In the showing world, ponies are often divided into three categories. These are small (12.2 hands/127 cm), medium (12.2-13.2 hands/127-137 cm), and large (13.2-14.2 hands/137-148 cm).
As a response to increasing demands, several modern horse breeds today have pony versions. A prime example is the Quarter Pony, a smaller version of the popular Quarter Horse breed. This is also how the Hackney Pony came to be, which is popular in driving competitions.
3. Not All Horses Under 14.2 Hands Are Ponies
As mentioned above, there are numerous breeds that mature over 14.2 hands and are still called horses. This is usually due to the fact that they look more like horses than ponies and can easily carry a full-grown adult. These horse breeds have traditionally been used for riding and are classed as “horses” in competitions.
Here are a few examples of pony-sized horse breeds with the average height in brackets:
- Haflinger (13.2-15 hands)
- Icelandic Horse (13-14 hands)
- Arabian (14.1-15 hands)
- Caspian Horse (9-11.2 hands)
- Fjord Horse (13.1-14.3 hands)
- Mongolian Horse (12-14 hands)
- Quarter Horse (14-16 hands)
- Yakutian Horse (13.2-13.3 hands)
- Camargue Horse (13.1-14.3 hands)
Interestingly, some of these breeds like the Fjord Horse or Icelandic Horse have typical pony-like features but are still considered “horses” by their breed societies. However, not all breeders and owners agree on whether they should be called horses or ponies.
On the other hand, certain pony breeds like the feral Chincoteague Pony that can mature over 14.2 hands. As these ponies live and breed in the wild, their height usually depends on genetics and the quality of nutrition they receive.
There are also occasions where people call horses of normal size “ponies”. This is the case of polo ponies or the horses used to lead racehorses on the track. Moreover, many owners affectionately call their horses “ponies” regardless of actual size.
4. Miniature Horses Are Not Ponies
Paradoxically, the smallest equines in the world are not called ponies but horses. Miniature horses stand well below the minimum height for a horse and are usually no taller than 9.2 hands (97 cm) at the withers.
The smallest horse breed in the world, the Falabella, is only 8 hands tall on average! It was developed from a mixture of Criollo, Welsh Pony, Shetland, and Thoroughbred bloodlines.
The reason why these tiny equines are considered horses has less to do with their height and more with their looks. Miniature horses are supposed to be scaled-down versions of their big relatives. They have little or no pony-like features such as proportionately short legs, round barrels, or a thick mane and tail.
5. Ponies Have Specific Conformation
As mentioned above, ponies not only differ from horses in height, but also in conformation. Compared to their large cousins, ponies have shorter legs in relation to their bodies, a wider head with large eyes and small ears, a thicker neck, and heavier bone. They also grow extra fluffy winter coats and wear dense manes and tails all year round.
Overall, ponies appear stockier and rounder than horses, although there are many exceptions. Sport pony breeds like the Connemara or the Pony of the Americas have slender and athletic bodies similar to horses.
These small equines are also blessed with strong and resistant hooves that allow them to travel on unforgiving terrain. Ponies inherited most of their characteristic features from the draft ancestors they developed from thousands of years ago.
6. Ponies Used To Work In Mines During The Industrial Revolution
Along with many women and children, large numbers of horses and ponies were compelled to work underground in coal mines. These equines were referred to as “pit ponies” regardless of size and were a common sight in mines between the mid-18th and mid-20th centuries.
The use of smaller pit ponies such as Shetlands and Miniatures was popular in Great Britain, especially after a new law freed women and children from working in coal mines in the 1840s. Welsh, Dartmoor, and Cornish ponies were also a frequent choice for work in small tunnels, while larger horses like the Cleveland Bay worked higher underground.
Unfortunately, most pit ponies lived out their lives in poor conditions underground, never seeing the sun again. Many of them went blind and suffered from other conditions as a result. The last working pony mine was the Drummond Coal Company colliery at Westville, Nova Scotia, which shut down in 1978.
7. Ponies Are Extremely Versatile
In general, ponies are famous for being surefooted and strong, with excellent stamina and a good work ethic. Traditionally, they most often served as driving, riding, and pack animals, although people used them for a variety of purposes.
In modern society, ponies have proven their worth in a wide range of equestrian roles. Due to their small size and tolerant nature, they make great teachers for beginners and children. Well-trained ponies are ideal as first mounts for people who are just learning to ride.
Besides leisure riding, ponies also stand their ground in competition, even if it’s against bigger horses. Breeds like the New Forest Pony or Australian Pony make excellent jumping, dressage, or eventing ponies.
Moreover, the Hackney Pony is a superb choice for those with a passion for competitive driving. Other British breeds like the Welsh Pony or Shetland Pony are suitable for both riding and driving.
Ponies can also make outstanding therapy horses for those living with physical or mental disabilities. Their comfortable backs and kind nature are valuable assets to equine-assisted therapy centers.
8. Ponies Have A Characteristic Temperament
While ponies typically have calm and friendly personalities, some people claim they can be stubborn and even cunning at times. It’s not uncommon that owners refer to their ponies as “cheeky”, “naughty” or “little devil”.
The truth is, ponies are very intelligent and quick-witted, but also agreeable. For this reason, their everyday behavior and attitude to work often depend on the quality of training they receive. Ponies that are trained by inexperienced handlers who don’t establish clear boundaries can easily pick up bad habits.
9. Ponies Are Strong For Their Size
Due to their higher bone density and stocky build, ponies are surprisingly strong for their size. Hence why larger ponies like the Connemara can be easily ridden by adults without putting much strain on the animal’s physique.
Did you know that Shetland Ponies are the strongest of all pony breeds relative to their size? These little ponies can pull up to 4.5 times their body weight, which is more than most horses can manage!
Also Read: 10 Interesting Facts About Shetland Ponies.
What’s more, draft-type ponies such as many of Britain’s mountain and moorland pony breeds can pull similar loads to those pulled by draft horses. Considering all they bring to the table, ponies really are underrated.
10. Ponies Are Generally Easy-Keepers
Most pony breeds are inherently hardy and able to thrive on minimal forage all year round. As a general rule, ponies need half the amount of hay per unit of body weight as a horse to maintain optimal condition. Unless they are doing intensive work, ponies will rarely require concentrate feeds.
On the other hand, there is a downside to this extremely efficient metabolism, as ponies can gain weight quickly when plenty of food is available. As a result, pony breeds are more susceptible to conditions such as laminitis and Cushing’s syndrome. To stay healthy, ponies therefore need an adequate weight management system and regular monitoring.
11. Ponies Live Longer Than Horses On Average
While the average lifespan of a horse is 20-30 years, it’s not uncommon that a pony lives well into their forties. Of course, this depends on many factors such as genetics, nutrition, and care. Nevertheless, ponies tend to live longer lives than horses.
According to the Guinness World Records, the oldest pony on record was Sugar Puff, who lived to be 56 before his owner put him down in 2007. His age is the equivalent of an incredible 150.5 in human years!
Sugar Puff was a 10-hand Shetland-Exmoor Pony cross who lived in West Sussex, United Kingdom. His last owner, Sally Botting, acquired him when he was 29 years old. Sugar Puff even taught Sally’s daughter how to ride!
According to the owner, everyone in the family loved Sugar Puff up to his very last moments. “He was a safe, reliable pony – we used to teach children to ride on him at school fetes. He was also an old hand at gymkhana and Pony Club. He was a fun pony – he used to come into the house at Christmas,” Sally Botting told Horse and Hound.
Also Read: 8 Oldest Horses in History