The Perks of Riding an “Oversized” Horse

As a rider who measures exactly at 5’ 1¾” this is an article I didn’t foresee myself ever writing. I firmly believe that a large part of finding a suitable horse for a rider is finding an appropriately sized partner. I also firmly believe that just because the horse is bigger does not mean it can jump bigger.

My longtime partner, Nessa, is exactly 16hh but because she’s an ISH and broad, I always wished she was a tick smaller. For the most part though, size-wise, we are a pretty good match. It’s a good thing, too, because she was never – even now in her advanced years – an easy ride. Fast forward to when Duncan, my 17hh (he’s 17.1hh but I prefer to subtract that .1) TB strutted into my life. He wasn’t a horse I went in search of (I’d never seek out a horse of that size for myself) but rather fell into my lap and for professional advancement, I couldn’t pass up. I’m more than honest about how mismatched we appear to be, and it’s the running joke with Jimmy and my lesson crew, but we work as a team despite our differences. Due to the large size discrepancy, I wouldn’t advise a rider under normal circumstances to get a horse that mismatched to them. However, I’ve learned there are some advantages to being a small rider living in a large horse’s world. They are likely not what you’d expect.

You have no choice but to ride better. The running joke about Duncan and I is that he frequently thinks he’s free jumping, because I’m so small — he’s unaware I’m in the irons. It’s meant to be a joke, but it’s also true. Due to my small stature and his very big stature, I have to up my riding game to be heard. Does that mean I man handle him, or work on my chest press to gain more muscle? Not at all. It means that if I’d like to be heard and understood, I have to be very clear and correct when using my aids. As riders, we’re all constantly striving to be as correct with our position as possible, but if we’re honest, we are SO happy that many times our horses understand us even in the moments that we fumble and aren’t as intentional with our aids. The problem with having less real estate on your horse is that our unintentional fumbling causes a complete lack of direction. I’m not saying that Duncan’s size has made me a perfect rider (I’ve got a long way to go, if I ever get there).  What I am saying is that I have complete awareness of his need for me to use my position to the best of my ability, so that he can hear my aids. Just that knowledge has helped light a fire under my butt to progress my riding as much as possible.

An accurate portrayal of our size differences. Photo by Crystal Sorrenti.

Humility. There are times when I feel like I couldn’t possibly need another lesson in humility. Just typing that is humbling. Despite Duncan’s enormous stature, he’s not a stately creature that’s popped out of an iconic painting. I love him, but can also admit that his head is bigger and longer than necessary and while is conformation is great for casually jumping enormous fences, it doesn’t make your heart flutter while he’s just chillaxin’ in the field. So, while he’s not the most beautiful horse my business owns, he is the most forgiving and sensitive. The human side of me would love to tell you that when we get a bad distance or miss a leg yield, that it’s because his very large head is on another planet (occasionally that’s the case). The fact of the matter is, if I ask clearly, he will do his best to comply. It kind of sounds like I’m back on the “ride better” topic, but this is about me not being able to blame anyone but myself. It’s important to be humble in our riding, because without it, we will eventually trick ourselves into thinking that our riding doesn’t need to advance. It will become the horse’s fault, or the weather’s, or our trainer’s. I choose to believe that people don’t knowingly decide to throw humility to the wind, I choose to believe that it happens gradually.  We have to strive to own up to our faults and shortcomings.

Social media has made it all the more difficult to be humble. It’s created a natural desire for us to have a picture perfect life to the outside world. Perfect skin, perfect make up, perfect spouse, perfect family, perfect horse, and perfect horse show results. You’re more likely to see someone’s grand champion ribbon, than their 8th place ribbon or video of them falling off. As I approach my late 30’s, I’d love to tell you that I’m too mature to care about appearances. In fact, I thought I was too mature for all of that until I sat down and started writing about humility. What became evident was how bummed I always was looking at pictures of impressively sized fences that looked tiny because of Duncan’s size. Do I really care about jump height? Well not really. I only care about our improvement and progression, which does sometimes include the jumps going up. So then, why would I care if he made the jumps look small? If I’m being completely honest and introspective, because I want to look capable to others. I want to be and feel capable, but as a professional who’s made their living off green horses and small jumps, I want others to know I am capable as well. I darn well know that’s no way to judge myself and my horses.

Creative angles are needed to make the jumps look big. Photo by Beth Takacs.

Making the best of your situation. My parents raised me to always work hard and do my best regardless of the situation (thanks, Mom and Dad!). They, and horses, taught me that sometimes someone else’s best will be better than mine. Instead of letting that defeat me or cry out in injustice, I learned to hit the ground running and to make my best better. I suppose that instead of seizing the opportunity I was given in buying an incredible horse, who was oversized for me, I could’ve passed up on that opportunity. I don’t know where I’d be now if that was the path I’d taken. However, I do know where I ended up and am going. My oversized partner has taken me places I couldn’t have imagined. I’ve not only dipped my toe into the eventing world, but my silent dream of going Preliminary and competing in a 2* is now an attainable goal. Instead of feeling defeated about how hard I have to work to get the most from my position, I feel blessed to have a horse who motivates me week in and week out to attain position greatness.

Photo by Beth Takacs.

While buying an oversized horse may not be the best option for most, or your first choice, there are some significant up sides. Some day it’ll be time for Duncan to find a new, and likely taller, partner, but for now we’re having a blast making each other the best that we can be.