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How to Choose the Right Size Horse: Your Ideal Horse Size

In this article...

In this article, explore the nuances of matching rider to horse, focusing on size for optimal harmony and performance. Unpack factors like weight, barrel fit, and discipline demands, ensuring your equestrian partnership is poised for success. Find your perfect equine match with insightful guidance.

When you decide that you want to buy or lease a horse, one question you will ask is ‘What size horse is right for me?’

Have you ever wondered what size horse you fit best?

Generally, you can ride horses in a range of sizes and be okay.

However, it’s possible to be too big or small for a horse as well. In this post, you’ll figure out what the ideal horse size range is for you. 

So how do you figure out what size horse is ideal for you? 

Top 3 Factors For Ideal Horse Size:

  1. How easily the horse can hold your weight. Which is generally 15-20% of their weight.
  2. How well the horse’s barrel takes up your leg instead of how tall the horse is. This will ensure you are more secure, effective with your leg aids, not top heavy, and look proportionate.
  3. What job will the horse be doing? The more intense the job the less weight the horse should carry.

READ POST>> Beginner’s Guide To Buying Your First Horse

Some equestrians say that if you are a rider with good balance and a strong independent seat, that makes it easier on the horse’s back. This is true, however that doesn’t mean you should be riding a horse that is not suited for carrying your weight.

It is important to make sure your horse is properly sized for you. Being too heavy for your horse, regardless of how well you ride, can not only affect the horse’s balance but also cause lameness and back problems. 

If you are overly tall on a horse, not only will you look disproportionate, but you will have to consistently battle to keep both yourself and the horse balanced. 

If you are too short you will have trouble wrapping your legs around the horse’s sides for effective use of your leg aids, you may feel top heavy, and this will make it harder to stay on if the horse acts up or spooks. 

If you are riding a horse for jumping and eventing you would want a bigger horse than if you were riding western pleasure. There is more stress on the horse’s legs when jumping and western pleasure is pretty low intensity.

Other Considerations For Ideal Horse Size

  • Age Of The Horse- the younger or older the horse the lighter the rider based on the horse’s carrying capacity.
  • Age Of The Rider- A young rider will continue growing so it may be worth getting a taller or stockier horse/pony on the riders suitable horse spectrum so they can grow with their mount longer. An older rider with more stiffness and aches may do better with a shorter horse on their suitable horse spectrum so that mounting and dismounting is easier.
  • Breed– Some breeds are more slender like the Thoroughbred and Arabian, while other breeds are more stocky like an Irish draught and Haflinger.
  • Conformation– Good conformation is what you ideally want in any horse. But it is even more important when you are doing more intense work or the horse has a more strenuous job. It is also more important when you are at the edge of the horse’s weight carrying capacity.
  • Body Condition– Along with the horse’s conformation, body condition is how much fat is on the horse’s body. You can’t accurately gauge what carrying capacity is on a horse that is very underweight or very overweight. In either case, they would need a lighter rider.
  • Training– A horse that has minimal training or is still green will be more unbalanced than a horse that is experienced and has solid training. The green horse will need a lighter rider.
  • Fitness– An unfit horse that is sitting in a field for a year will need a lighter rider than a horse the same size that has been in regular work and has a base fitness level.

 As you can see there are many aspects you need to consider when you are trying to figure out what your ideal horse size is. Before we go into detail and work out what size horse is the best for you I want to clarify.

There are so many factors of finding the ideal horse and size is just one of them. For example you may find a horse that is great for you in most ways, but that is not your perfect size. 

That is okay as long as: 

  1. the horse is in the range of carrying you comfortably for the work you want to do
  2. you fit well enough that your size doesn’t put the horse or yourself off balance
  3. you are able to apply your aids effectively to the horse.

If you can check these three things off, that horse is probably a great match for you. It is hard to find horses that will check off all your boxes on your horse wish list. So keep an open mind when looking for a horse and decide what you can be lenient on and what your must haves are.

Now that I clarified let’s figure out what size horse is your ideal mount.

How To Figure Out How Much Weight A Horse Can Comfortably Carry

The U.S. Calvary published “The Cavalry Manual of Horse Management”, by Frederick L. Devereux, Jr., in 1941. He recommended that the collective weight of rider and gear not exceed 20% of the total weight of the horse.


According to a study done from Ohio State University, light horses with wider loins and thicker cannon bone circumference became less sore when carrying heavier weight. 

They were tested with carrying 15%, 20%, 25% and 30% of their weight. The horses started to feel strain at 25% and significant strain and muscle soreness at 30%. 

So according to this study staying at 20% is a comfortable carrying weight for horses.

This is a general guideline! There are other things to take into consideration when figuring out comfortable weight carrying capacity.

  • 15-20% includes the rider and the tack.
  • An english saddle averages at 20lbs .
  • A western saddle averages at 50lbs.
  • These calculations are based on a horse that is in good condition, not underweight or overweight.
  • Look for a stockier horse with thicker bones, which will stand up better to carrying a heavier rider. A stockier 15h horse will be able to hold more weight than a thinner boned 15h horse.
  • Horses carry a balanced rider better than a sack of potatoes, in other words dead weight.
  • Young horses and old horses should not have too much weight in order to help prevent injuries which are more susceptible at these ages.

Here is a chart for a quick reference to what horses are comfortable carrying based on their weight and the 15-20% rule. 

Horse’s Weight Weight Carrying Capacity- 15%Weight Carrying Capacity- 20%
700 pounds105140
800 pounds120160
900 pounds135180
1000 pounds150200
1100 pounds165220
1200 pounds180240
1300 pounds195260
1400 pounds210280
1500 pounds225300
1600 pounds240320
1700 pounds255340
1800 pounds270360
1900 pounds285380
2000 pounds300400

Video: What Weight Is Too Heavy To Ride Horses?

How To Figure Out How Much A Horse Weighs

The most accurate way to get a horse’s weight is with a floor scale that is large enough for a horse. However most of us do not have one nor the extra money lying around to buy one. Instead you can take measurements to get an estimate of the horse’s weight.

There are two ways you can measure a horse to figure out their weight estimate.

  1. Equine weight tape
  2. Horse measurements with formula

Equine Weight Tape

The equine height/weight tape is not as accurate as taking the horse’s measurements and using the formula. On average it tends to be around 145lbs off. But it can be a quick and easy way to get a basic estimate of the horse’s weight. 

If you want a weight/height tape Horse.com sells them. They are cheap and although they are not as accurate, using one can be a quick way to keep track of weight changes in your horse. 

To Use The Equine Height/Weight Tape:

  1. Put the tape over the horse’s back and make sure the weight measurement side is facing up.
  2. Wrap the tape all the way around the horse’s girth and keep as vertical and level as you are able.
  3. The tape should be snug but not really tight.
  4. Where the zero line is on the tape should line up with the horse’s weight line. 
  5. Don’t forget to write it down. 
  6. Take a couple more measurements to make sure the horse was not bloating. 
  7. Write down each weight estimate and then find the average weight estimate. 
  8. Weight estimate 1 +Weight estimate 2 + Weight estimate 3 +Weight estimate 4= Total Weight Estimates / Number of times measured which is 4=average   

Example for Average Weight Estimate:

705lbs+750lbs+ 800lbs+720lbs=2975/4=743.75lbs round up to 744lbs which is the average.

As a barn manager I used to use one on all the horses once a month and record their weight estimate, to make sure the horses were staying at a fairly consistent weight.

Estimating Horses Weight: Measuring Tape and Formula

Though this method is not as accurate as a scale it is more accurate than using the equine weight tape. This method according to a study done on horse weight measurement accuracy is usually around 38lbs off. It doesn’t take much more work either as you are only taking one extra measurement and can use your phone’s calculator.

First take the horse’s 2 measurements:

  1. The horse’s heart girth- This measurement goes all the way around the barrel where the girth would go. 
  2. The horse’s body length- This measurement is from the point of the horse’s shoulder to the point of buttock. Much easier measuring with 2 people.

To calculate the horse’s weight you will use the following formula:

Adult Horse:  Heart girth X Heart girth X Body length, divided by 330 = weight

So you may notice if you look at different articles that this formula is not always the same some people divide by 300. That is because there are different formulas. Check out this article Assessment Of Body Weight and Condition from VeterianKey.com for more about that.

A widely used equation that has been evaluated in ponies and light breed horses (Reavell 1999) was developed by Carroll and Huntington (1988), and is applied as bodyweight = girth2 × length/y, where y = 11 877 for measurements in metric units (cm and kg) or y = 330 for measurements in imperial units (in and lb).

Rebecca A. Carter, Alexandra H.A. Dugdale

So In this case measurements are inches and lbs.

You can use a measuring tape if you are desperate, but most of the tape measures only go to 60″. It would be helpful to use string or tie bailing twine to measure. Mark the string and lay it down. Use the measuring tape and some addition to figure out the measurement.

Here is an example of calculating a horse’s weight:

72” for heart girth 

70” for body length

72x 72 x 70/ 300= 1131.05 and round up to 1132lbs.

How To Figure Out How Much Your Saddle Weighs

Part of the carrying capacity of the horse aside from the rider includes the horse’s tack. The best way to figure out the weight of your saddle is to use a scale or you can also take a look at the chart I created for Average Saddle Weight By Type to get a basic idea of your saddle’s weight.

How To Calculate Your Saddle’s Weight

  1. Use a bathroom scale.
  2. Weigh yourself and write down weight.
  3. Weigh yourself holding the saddle and write down your weight.
  4. (Your weight with saddle)- (Your weight)= Saddle weight

Chart: Average Saddle Weights By Type

These figures are what I found around the internet so I am sure they will vary more than what is listed. But it gives you a basic idea of what they weigh.

Type Of Saddle Average Saddle Weights
English: Close Contact Saddle10-15lbs
English: All Purpose Saddle15-20lbs
English: Dressage Saddle15-25lbs
English: Cross Country Saddle12.7lbs
English: Trail Saddle25-35lbs
English: Saddle Seat15-20lbs
English Side Saddle21-40lbs
English Racing Saddle1-2lbs
Endurance Saddle15-20lbs
Synthetic English Saddle12-25lbs
Synthetic Western Saddle15-20lbs
Western Barrel Racing Saddle25-35 lbs
Western Roping Saddle30-45lbs
Western Ranch Saddle40-60lbs
Western Trail or Pleasure Saddle22-26lbs
Western Cutting Saddle27lbs-40lbs
Western Reining Saddle23-40lbs

How To Check For Horse Weight Carrying Suitability

As you know horses come in different widths and bone density as well as height. To go further and get a better gauge of whether a horse is suitable for carrying you there is an equation that adds in cannon bone circumference. This gives the rider a better idea of the horse’s suitability based on weight and bone size. I found this equation on gaitedhorses.net.

Horse Suitability Test 

Add up the total weight of the horse, rider and tack. 

  • Horse weight + Rider weight + tack weight ÷ Cannon bone circumference ÷ 2 = suitability 

Result Scores

Values near 75 are ideal, below 75, are even better.

Values from 75/80 are okay.

Values over 80-85 the horse is weakened and you need to train carefully.

Values over 85 suggest you shouldn’t be riding this horse

Example Horse Suitability Test

  • Horse- 1200lbs
  • Rider-200lbs
  • Tack- 35lbs
  • Cannon bone circumference- 9 inches
  1. 1200+200+35=1435
  2. 1435/9=159.44
  3. 159.44/2=79.72

The horse in the example above according to this formula is not the perfect size but is still in the suitable range.

Keep In Mind

This too is not totally accurate, just another general gauge to help give you an idea of what size horse is right for you. Remember the horse’s weight measurement tends to be off… sometimes over 100lbs. 

Also something interesting I found out is that bone mass can increase with fitness in horses, just like humans as well. If you are borderline with a horse that has been out of work it is possible to build up the horse’s bone mass with proper conditioning.

From my research, it seems like this takes quite a bit of time. You need to be consistent, patient, and aware that it will only increase a little bit. If you’re interested check out this article that talks about horse’s bone density increasing with exercises from TheHorse.com.

Where Should Your Legs Fall On The Horse’s Barrel?

I mentioned that the height of the horse doesn’t matter as much as the horse’s width and barrel size or depth of the girth. 

You want the horse’s barrel to take up your leg within an optimal range. You should be able to wrap your legs around the horse’s sides enough that you can effectively influence the horse with your leg aids.

  • If a rider finds their legs halfway down the horse’s sides or shorter that horse’s girth depth is either too long or the horse is too wide for that rider. 
  • If a rider finds their ankles below the horse’s barrel, that horse is too narrow or the girth depth is too short for the rider’s legs.

In both these circumstances the rider will have difficulties riding these horses even if the weight carrying capacity is within range. 

This will create balancing issues for both horse and rider, leg aids will be more difficult to apply effectively and horse and rider will look disproportionate.

Is it possible? Yes! Is it ideal? No!

Conformation wise, ideally the horse’s barrel should be half of the horse’s height and the other half of the horse’s height should be the leg length. But many horses do not fall under this standard.

Also even if a horse does fall under this standard of conformation, some are on the narrow side while others are wide. That contributes to how a horse will take up your leg.

In my opinion the rider’s inseam should be between 40%-55% of the horse’s height and more ideally 45%-50% of the horse’s height. I went all nerdy with this chart.

For dressage where your leg is longer 40%-50% of the horse’s height is best so your legs don’t hang too long. Your leg will go up, about roughly 5% for dressage stirrup length.

For jumping 45%-55% of the horse’s height so your leg isn’t too short where you would have difficulty wrapping your legs around the horse and using leg aids. Your leg will go up about 10% for jumping stirrup length.

Remember this is a rough estimate because it doesn’t take into account:

  • How wide the horse is 
  • How deep the horse’s girth is
  • How short or long the rider prefers to have stirrups.

Ways to find a horse with an appropriately sized barrel:

  1. The horse is within the weight range that can carry you. 
  2. You have a general range of horse heights for your leg length. 
  3. Eyeball the horse as to whether the horse is narrow or wide looking.
  4. And finally the only way to know for sure if the horse will fit your leg length is to actually get on the horse and see for yourself.

How To Figure Out Ideal Horse Height Range Based On Your Leg Inseam

I created a chart to give you an idea of the height range based on your leg length. This is meant to be used in combination with everything else in this post, not by itself. 

  1. Take measurement with measuring tape from the inside of your leg at your crotch down to the ground.
  2. View chart to get an idea of ideal horse height range.

Estimated Horse/Pony Height Range For Rider 

Most equine mounts tend to be around 17h or less but there are some out there taller than that. The record was a 21.1 hand Shire gelding named Sampson. 

So when you see the numbers on the chart that are taller than 18h don’t expect to find a horse that tall. I am putting them in the chart for the sake of the person’s inseam potentially fitting that sized horse even if most of them don’t exist. It’s at least interesting to know.

Remember that there is more to finding the right size than just height. A 16 hand narrow built Thoroughbred will feel and take up your leg much differently than a 16 hand broad built Irish Draught.

I used a formula based on the rider’s inseam, percentage of the horse’s height and horse’s height using inches and hands.

Rider’s Inseam MeasurementIdeal Horse Height
Dressage Riding/ Long Stirrup
Min-Max Height
Jumper Riding/Short Stirrups
Min-Max Height
27”13.2h-15h13.2- 16.3h12.1h-15h
28”14h-15.2h14h-17.2h12.3h- 15.2hh
29”14.2h-16h14.2h-18h13.1h- 16h
30”15h- 16.2h15h-18.3h13.3h-16.2h
31”15.2h-17.1h15.2h-19.1h14h- 17.1h
32”16h- 17.3h16h- 20h14.2h- 17.3h
33”16.2h- 18.1h16.2h- 20.2h15h- 18.1h
34”17h- 18.3h17h- 21.1h15.2h- 18.3h
35”17.2h- 19.2h17.2h- 21.3h16h- 19.2h
36”18h-20h18h- 22.2h16.1h- 20h

Rider Opinion Poll On Ideal Horse Height 

This is an interesting poll done by thehorse.com. 1,150 people voted their opinion on a poll about their ideal horse height. These were the results. You can check out the Ideal Horse Height Poll on thehorse.com.

Horse You Will Need For The Type Of Work You Want To Do

So as you can now see there is a range of horses that could be suitable for you. But there is still more you want to consider when figuring out the best sized horse for you. That would be the type of work you want to do. 

  • What riding discipline do you plan on doing?
  • How intense will the horse’s load be?

As far as riding disciplines go the most important thing is that the horse and rider fit well together and the horse is suitable for the discipline . But there are some disciplines like cutting, barrel racing, and gymkhanas that lean toward horses on the shorter side. Disciplines like dressage, hunt seat, western pleasure lean toward taller horses.

Learn more about the sport you are interested in and the types of horses typically used in that sport to get a better idea of what you should look for.

The other thing to think about is the horse’s work load. Certain disciplines are more strenuous on the horse, like barrel racing and eventing.

Along with the type of discipline other workload factors include:

  • How often you ride
  • How long you ride
  • How intense the ride is

The more work the horse is going to do and the more intense the work is:

  • The less weight the horse should carry within their limits 
  • The more sound the horse needs to be 
  • The better the conformation or way the horse is put together you will want

What Is Considered Intense Work?

The 2006 National Research Council’s book, ‘Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition’ (link to Amazon) explains the different kinds of workload levels a horse can be in:

“ A horse in light work does between one and three hours of work per week. This is made up of approximately 40% walk, 50% trot and 10% canter. This could include trail or pleasure riding, working ponies, horses during the early stages of training, or show horses given occasional work. The hours are really only a rough guide, if you’re doing six hours of mostly walking it’s still light work. 10% canter works out to up to a full 30 minutes of cantering each week. Be realistic about your work level.

A horse in moderate work does between three and five hours per week. This is made up of approximately 30% walk, 55% trot and 10% canter, 5% low jumps or other skill work. This could include horses used for trail riding, horses during early stages of training, show horses, dressage, campdraft, polo, stock work, cutting horses, showjumpers and low-level eventers. Again these hours are just a guide. If you’re doing dressage training this means you’re still in a moderate level of work if you’re doing two and a half hours of trotting each week!

Heavy work is a horse doing between four and five hours per week. This is made up of 20% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter, 15% gallop, jumping or other skill work. This could include stock horses, polo, high level dressage & show jumping, medium level eventing and race training.

Very Heavy/Intense work is really only done by racehorses, elite 3 day eventers and endurance horses. Their work varies – it can be one hour each week of speed work or between six and twelve hours of slow work. Their average heart beat across all working hours will be in the range 110 – 150 bpm.”

A horse that is in Maintenance if you are wondering, is basically a horse that is not in work and is in their normal daily routine.


Use this article to help you get a general idea of what the right sized horse is for you, but be somewhat flexible trying horses outside of what is considered the right size for you. 

You can only really know if the horse is the right size by getting on the horse and riding them.

However for the sake of the horse it is best to stay within their comfortable weight carrying capacity.

Cheers, Kacey

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Disclaimer Notice: Please be aware that horseback riding and related equestrian activities carry inherent risks. The advice and experiences shared on this blog are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional training or advice. Ensure your safety and that of your horse by wearing appropriate gear, practicing safe horse handling, and consulting with certified equestrian professionals. Remember, each horse is unique, and techniques may vary accordingly. Always prioritize safety, respect, and patience in your equestrian endeavors.

Kacey Cleary Administrator
Kacey has been an equestrian since 1998. She was a working student at several eventing and dressage barns. She has owned horses, leased horses, and trained horses. Kacey received an A.S. in Equine Industries from UMass Amherst, where she rode on the dressage team. She was certified with the ARIA and is licensed to teach riding in MA. She has been a barn manager and has run her own horse farm.
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