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New Horsemen & Big Horse Breeds: A Bad Combination?

By Jeffrey Rolo

Often I am witness to the belief that individuals new to horses should avoid owning a big horse breed due to a perceived additional difficulty in handling such a powerful animal, as well as the increased risk of injury that comes paired with that difficulty. I've heard this belief espoused by a wide spectrum of people ranging from nervous prospective horse buyers all the way on up to experienced horse trainers. If you're new to equines, don't purchase a draft horse – go for a pony instead!

So do I agree with this stance? Not really, and I'll explain why.

Size Doesn't Matter

Forgive me for spitting out such an overused cliché, but the reality is that when it comes to judging horse breeds, size truly doesn't matter – at least in a purely logical sense. There is no correlation between a horse's size and a horse's personality and demeanor (which in large part determines ease of handling and training).

Let's take a look at Arabian horses, for example. Placed side by side with a huge breed such as a Belgian draft horse, a newcomer would be forgiven for immediately concluding that the slighter, shorter Arabian would be far easier to handle. In the human world, smaller generally equates to easier to control.

But the reality is that draft horses are typically gentle giants, despite their potentially intimidating size. They were bred to be faithful workhorses, and unless you stumble across an uncommon bad egg, you'll find that a draft horse is calm, deliberate and eager to please.

Arabians, on the other hand, can be little spitfires. They are known to be a hot breed, and this reputation is not unfair for they are indeed more challenging to handle than many other breeds. This isn't an insult to the breed – I've owned several during my years with horses, and I will always have a deep appreciation for them. But I wouldn't recommend an inexperienced horse owner purchase an Arab until they have some experience under their belt, because Arabians have an independent streak that, while easy to work around, can easily overwhelm the unprepared horse owner.

The bottom line: a horse's size is a poor indicator as to how challenging a given breed will be to work with. But why is that?

It's All In The Head

The mindset will typically dictate the reality. This is true for all animals, and it's true for us too.

The number one mistake humans make when working with horses is projecting their sense of logic onto the horse, which simply doesn't work. Humans are by nature predators, so we calculate threats differently than a prey animal might. I'm not saying that we're all selfish and dog-eat-dog, but imbedded within virtually all of us is a varying degree of "don't tread on me." We may attempt to avoid confrontation to a certain point, but when the intrusion becomes too much to bear, we'll strike back if we perceive our chances of success to be high in doing so. Many of us go beyond that, seeking not only to preserve one's domain, but also to expand it. We want more social influence, more money, more respect, more friends.

Horses, on the other hand, are prey animals. Although the more alpha members of a group may jockey for position within their pack, horses are not inclined to face a perceived threat head-on – the flight instinct kicks in and they shy away from the threat. And it's this very difference that makes size irrelevant.

To a predator, size matters, because it determines whether the target is to be feared or dismissed. The average guy would be unlikely to fear a horse jockey at first glance, but if an angry bodybuilder started heading his way, he might be tempted to run for the hills quickly!

To a horse, there isn't a whole lot of difference between the jockey, the average guy, or the bodybuilder. To horses, humans are all alike – they are potential predators, and potential threats. They would rather shy away from a confrontation than risk testing the predator's actual ability to inflict harm. If you still find this hard to believe, consider this: you don't see Thoroughbreds, which are typically very tall, energetic and powerful, rebelling against jockeys, who are shorter than average and lighter of weight. In fact a trained jockey will get far more respect from a horse than an inexperienced basketball player, because the jockey understands the horse's mindset. To horses, it's all in the mind, and size doesn't enter the equation.

If horses were predators like us, the simple fact of the matter is they would win all pure contests of strength, from draft horses right on down to the ponies. They all have more weight and strength behind them, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime would wave the white flag of defeat. (This isn't to say we can't use calculated maneuvers to lend ourselves a physical advantage – I'm talking about pure raw strength comparisons.)

So does this mean an inexperienced horse owner should dismiss size altogether? No, I'm not. And I'll try not to contradict myself as I explain why despite everything I stated above, size might remain a valid consideration for you in the conclusion to New Horsemen & Big Horse Breeds: A Bad Combination?

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