What’s the ideal height of a western horse? HN’s in-house cowgirl Kristen Kovatch explains that it has less to do with rider stature than you might think.
Quarter horses come in literally almost every shape, size and color: you can essentially custom-pick the horse that best fits your desired job (kind of like a trip to the hardware store—the options are overwhelming.) Sometimes I look at my string of western horses at the university where I work as western teacher/trainer and marvel that most of them are in fact all one breed—we’ve got little ones, big ones, sorrels, palominos, bays, and everything else in between. (Cue Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar.”)
What’s a big horse to one cowboy is a little horse to another—depending on his job. Things like horse-rider suitability in terms of adequate size matching don’t matter quite as much in certain western disciplines—which is great news for me at five-foot-eleven. If it was up to size alone, I’d be stuck riding my draft driving horses:
This is a full-sized Belgian, around 17 hands. Sadly, this is what I technically “fit” on. (Note the driving bridle…this was Rocky’s second time being ridden ever.)
Instead, I ride a little bit of everything. My job as a general “western trainer” means that in a single day I could be riding my cowhorse, a handful of pleasure horses, reiners, hunter crossovers, and various equines that slip through the classification system and just “ride western.” Let’s take a look at some examples:
Playgirl, alias Fing (don’t ask)
Yes, this is me, and my horse. Yes, she is a pony. Yes, I look ridiculous riding her. Fortunately she’s a total BA so it works out. Cowhorses tend to be quite small and low to the ground—think about it, you don’t want to have space under the neck or belly for a cow to sneak under. Cutting horses also tend to have the energy level of border collies and similar reaction times—it’s impossible to wear this pony out and she’s a heck of a good time to ride on a cow. It’s normal at a cutting or a reined cowhorse show to see enormous cowboys on the backs of horses that would really measure to be large ponies at best. These horses get so low to the ground on a cow that the rider’s boot sometimes touches the dirt. So by normal standards, Playgirl is small. By cutter standards, she’s about average.
Tres, alias Queso or Snuggle-bunny
Bizarre conformation aside, my second horse Tres is still on the small-ish size as far as I’m concerned, and also on a the smaller size within his designated job as a western pleasure horse. I look only slightly too big when I ride him (western riders can get away with being a little bit taller on a smaller animal than hunt seat riders) but he’s too small for me to show in the all-around. He lacks the leg length to cut it in the AQHA hunters (well, to be fair, he lacks leg in general) though he makes a fine hacking-around horse. He actually traveled to the Interscholastic Equestrian Association hunt seat national finals in Syracuse last spring and helped a young rider to a national championship—who would’ve thought? Fortunately for Tres-o-Queso, his rider was twelve or thirteen and still in garters, making him look like a total majestic steed.
Blessing, alias Bess
Though she would probably stick to about the same height as Tres, Blessing is a good deal sturdier in bone and body (and much better conformed.) This mare is bred from some pretty old and classic cow horse lines, though she’s a little too tall for my tastes as a cutter. She would be more of the style of horse I would look for as a roping mount or general “cow horse,” something I would want to ride on the trail all day pushing cattle from one pasture to the other. She’s on the bigger end of the spectrum for reiners but only a little taller than average. Being the same height as Tres, it’s funny to think of the gelding being small for his field while Blessing is tall. It’s all relative.
Benson, alias Benny-boy, or Bunson according to a tragic misspelling by SmartPak
And then we have Benson, who is actually almost freakishly tall as far as our western barn goes (and yet still looks normal-sized next to me…sigh.) I honestly don’t know how this horse got this big being all Quarter horse; I suspect a little Thoroughbred outcross back in his pedigree somewhere. Benson did do the all-around in his active showing days, having the size and the stride for hunter under saddle as well as western pleasure. I might—might—be able to get away with showing this horse and not looking totally out of place. In the more superficial world of hunter under saddle and western pleasure, suitability is emphasized more than in the performance disciplines of reining and cow horse.
Go ride western…there’s a wide world of it out there.
Special thanks to Peter Metz, photographer!
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.