William Micklem: Does Size Matter? In Praise of Smaller Horses

EN is excited to bring you a new series from William Micklem: Breadth As Well As Depth. The series addresses the need for breadth in eventing education and also includes his thoughts on event horse breeding, plus gives added value from the inimitable Harry Potter. Today we bring you Part 6: Does Size Matter? In Praise of Smaller Horses. Be sure to read Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Traditional Irish Sport Horse Lenamore with Caroline Powell. He completed 24 four-stars, 7 times placed at Badminton and won Burghley at the age of 17. He is a 15.3 son of the Irish Draught Sea Crest. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Dumbledore said in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire: “Cornelius! You place too much importance, and you always have done, on the so-called purity of blood! You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!”

Dumbledore is talking about how someone grows mentally, and of course this is key both for humans and horses. But sadly in the horse world we often place too much emphasis on their sheer physical size and insufficient emphasis on their mental qualities, a horse’s character and personality. I think it may be a man thing!

However historically some great and famous men have preferred small horses. Winston Churchill said 15.3 was big enough for any man, and Wellington and Napoleon’s famous war-horses, Copenhagen and Marengo, were just 15 and 14.1 hands respectively.

Both these horses performed some extraordinary feats of endurance. For example Copenhagen, who was a three-fourths Thoroughbred stallion, was the Duke’s mount during the Battle of Waterloo, carrying him for 17 hours continuously during the battle.

Marengo was frequently used in the 80 mile gallops from Valladolid to Burgos in Spain, which he often completed in under five hours. What is interesting is that recent research shows that Marengo, whose skeleton is in the UK, was actually Irish bred, rather than being born in Egypt as previously thought, and was a part bred Connemara!

Smaller is often better

The current fashion for big horses is probably a cause of both soundness problems and a lack of longevity in the modern sport horse, so there is a real need to knock on the head the theory that bigger is better.

It is well known in the dog world that small dogs live longer than big dogs and in general the same applies in the horse world. For example Shire and heavy horses rarely live much past 20 and the majority of longevity records are achieved by ponies, who often have almost twice this life span.

When it comes to soundness the data is limited, but the general experience is that those who stay sounder longer tend to be those that are lighter on their feet and move efficiently. This is no surprise as both trainers and equine veterinarians confirm that the majority of ailments are in the foot and lower half of the foreleg, and so those that pound the ground heavily are more likely to sustain injuries in these areas.

We also know that there is a high frequency of foreleg tendon and ligament injuries with horses that work at or close to their maximum speed, particularly when tired. So by using quality animals, of any breed, that can both work well within their maximum speed and spring over the ground, there is a greater chance of staying sound.

The weight of a horse has an obvious effect on the forces exerted on ligaments, tendons and bone structure of the horse. The weight ranges within different breeds can be huge, but in general it is true that the average 14.2 pony is half the weight of an average modern sport horse and the average Thoroughbred is 200 pounds lighter than a sport horse of a similar height.

However, the crucial point is the sport horse does not have twice the amount of bone as the pony, nor are its ligaments and tendons twice as strong, and even though the Thoroughbred is 200 pounds lighter than the sport horse the Thoroughbred has evolved to be stronger in these key areas because of the racing industry.

Of course there are exceptions but there is a correlation between soundness of the lower limb and the forces exerted on them, and weight (mass) and speed are the two most significant factors influencing these forces. The weight of a horse within each breed will tend to increase and decrease according to their size, therefore smaller means lighter but not necessarily weaker.

As examples my foundation mare, High Dolly, the dam of Mandiba, High Kingdom and Jackaroo, was seven-eighths Thoroughbred and not quite 16 hands, but won four point-to-points by a distance carrying 175 pounds! While Hyperion, one of the most influential Thoroughbred sires of all time, was only 15.1 when he won the English Derby and fully grown was just 15.3.

World beating small event horses

Also 15.3 was Charisma, Mark Todd’s double Olympic individual gold medalist in 1984 and 1988; and one inch even smaller was his teammate Heelan Tompkin’s prolific Glengarrick, who was the smallest and oldest horse at the 2004 Athens Olympics where he finished seventh individually as an 18-year-old.

Glengarrick also won the CCI3* at Puhinui in Auckland aged 19 in 2005. The following year he made his final championships appearance at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen in 2006, once again taking seventh place.

Like Mark and Heelan, their New Zealand teammate Caroline Powell made her name on a small horse, Lenamore. This 15.3 superstar won Burghley at the age of 17 and completed two four-stars every year from 2005 until 2012 when he was 19! He was by the sire of Cruising, the Irish Draught Sea Crest, and was in the rosettes at Badminton an amazing seven times.

Also 15.3 was Kirby Park Irish Jester, ridden by Australia’s Megan Jones. This 75% Thoroughbred Irish Sport Horse was a stalwart of Australian eventing for many years, competing at the 2006 Aachen World Equestrian Games and earning a team silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He finished 2008 ranked #1 on the FEI World Leaderboard for eventing.

However Australia’s most famous little horse has to be the 15-hand Our Solo, who Bill Roycroft rode to win Badminton and be part of the gold medal Olympic team in Rome in 1960.

Show jumping pocket rockets 

They say show jumpers need to have size, but there are many examples of small superstars. For example last September Kent Farrington won the Longines Masters in Los Angeles on his much loved Creedance, who is just 15.1. Last spring in Wellington the $1 million class was won by Lauren Hough on her prolific winner the 15.2 mare Ohlala.

Of course the biggest show jumping Olympic track of all time was in 1968 in Mexico and the Silver medal was won by Marion Coakes on Stroller, the Irish rubber ball who I once watched win a 14.2 pony class with Marion! Mexico was a triumph for small horses, as the USA’s Bill Steinkraus rode the 16-hand Thoroughbred Snowbound to beat Stroller for the gold medal. The British gold medal event team had Jane Bullen on the 14.3 Our Nobby, who also won Badminton that year.

Another Thoroughbred, Touch of Class, won the 1984 show jumping gold medal for the USA in Los Angeles. Ridden by Joe Fargis, she was just 15.3. And who could forget 1988 Olympic Champion Jappaloup, ridden for France by Pierre Durand, who was 15.1, or in more recent times the two 15.2 Grand Prix legends Laura Kraut’s Cedric, and long time world number one Itot du Chateau, ridden by Edwina Tops-Alexander.

My personal favourites were Eric Lamaze on the 16-hand powerhouse and multiple Grand Prix winner Hickstead, and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s Quick Star, the sire of Nick Skelton’s gold medalist Big Star and so many other great jumpers, who was just a fraction over 15.2.

World beating ponies and pony genes 

When Theodore O’Connor stormed round both the Pan Americans and Kentucky CCI4* with Karen O’Connor, despite being just under 14.2, we were mesmerized, but in fact there have been numerous ponies and part bred ponies competing successfully in international competitions, including 14.3 Little Tiger, ridden by Britain’s Phoebe Buckley, who completed six four-stars from 2008 to 20010.

Little Tiger was seven-eighths Thoroughbred, and crossing the Thoroughbred with the Connemara Pony has long proved to be a wonderful genetic mix. Stroller was bred this way, as are both Allie Blyskal-Sacksen’s four-star flyer Sparrow’s Nio and Camilla Speirs’ Portersize Just a Jiff, who had two top 10 finishes at four-stars last year.

There was another part-bred Connemara that was one of the best event horses of all time. His name was Grasshopper, so called because of his regular bucking sessions. A three-time Olympian and hall of famer he was bred a few miles from me in Co Wicklow, by the Thoroughbred Tudor out of a Connemara pony called Hope.

Grasshopper was ridden by Ireland’s Ian Dudgeon in the 1956 Olympics at Stockholm Sweden, then came to the USA and was ridden by Michael Page in 1960 at the Rome Olympics and again in 1964 at Tokyo.

Jimmy Wofford describes him like this: “He was smart, tough, brave, and indefatigable beyond belief. He would still be pulling at the end of a 22-mile speed and endurance test.”  Grasshopper won team silver and individual gold medal at the 1959 Pan American Games, team and gold medals at the 1963 Pan American Games, and team silver medal and fourth place individual finish at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was a true legend.

Two other world class part-bred Connemaras were Dundrum and Marcus Aurelius. Tommy Wade’s 15-hand Dundrum won not only Grand Prix but also Speed and Puissance classes. He once won all five international classes at the Dublin Horse Show and was also a part of the winning Aga Khan Nations Cup team. Something that is unlikely to ever be repeated.

Marcus Aurelius was the 15.1-hand ride of a lifetime for Mary Anne Tauskey, as part of the gold medal winning USA teams in both the Pan American Games and the Montreal Olympics.

Huge advantages of pony and TB genes

Pony blood is underused in sport horses. Just consider the facts: Ponies are different genetically and so many things are less prevalent in ponies, including navicular, tendonitis and warts. When cut they even produce little of the proud flesh (granulation) that is common with wounds on horses. A good dollop of pony blood has much to offer sport horse breeding and might be a game changer for those who breed performance horses.

This is because ponies live longer, are generally sounder, have more pound per pound dynamic strength, and in my opinion are also more intelligent overall. This is not surprising as the modern sport horse brain has only been developed over the last 150 years and the Thoroughbred over 300 years, but the Connemara pony, for example, has had between 1,500 and 2,500 years for brain development.

Arguably the most influential show jumping sire of all time was the slightly built three-fourths Thoroughbred Cor de la Bryere. He was almost gelded in France because of this but then sent to Germany instead and little used initially. They soon saw the error of this move as his offspring started to perform. Now in modern show jumping there is a much greater appreciation of the need for quality and a horse that can gallop.

Even in dressage more quality horses abound and who can forget the petite 16.00 Rembrandt who won eight individual Gold medals with Nicole Uphoff and looked just like a quality event horse. His dam was by the Thoroughbred Angelo. Despite what we are often told there is wide use of Thoroughbred blood in dressage horses, and even the Hanoverian stallion of the year in 2006 was the full Thoroughbred Lauries Crusador.

In addition as I outlined in my previous article the majority of Germany’s top event horses are three-fourths Thoroughbred or more, even though they may be branded Holsteiner or Hanoverian.

Custom made horses

So does size matter? In the world of performance horses it is almost certainly overrated, especially when the majority of riders are female. Of course it is important to have a horse that can easily carry their rider, but ideally in a general purpose saddle the rider’s knees should be at the widest point of the body of the horse, and not several inches above as often happens with a small rider on a big horse.

In addition, as well as being easier to ride, small horses also have safety benefits, as they are less likely to create balance and security issues for the rider.

Therefore as horse riding is both a sport for all and sport for life the smaller horses are vital, not only for elite sport, but to provide the right mounts for the hundreds of thousands of novice and pleasure riders, and for the thousands of young and the old who might take up riding if it was easier to find the right horse. Then many more could experience the life enhancing possibilities of our extraordinary sport, with all its transferable skills.

Without doubt the equestrian world has always had much to offer in terms of life skills and as Winston Churchill, a real Professor Dumbledore figure if there ever was one, said, “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle.” So let’s make these magical hours possible for many more people … and from this group of new riders some could undoubtedly find their Harry Potter spirit, dig deep into their mental strength and become Olympians.

©William Micklem

Next Time: BREADTH AS WELL AS DEPTH + Lessons from Harry Potter, he concluding part of this series: Part 7 – Friendship and bravery and two wonderful USA superheroes.