Thoroughbred Logic: Does Size Really Matter?


“… to exclude the good ones because they are a touch too short seems silly and often tells me more about the newness of the buyer to this game than about their ability and desire.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week, come along for the ride as Aubrey offers her logic on the size of the horse and how it translates to talent and success. 

Two weekends ago, while schooling at Poplar Place Farms, one of my students, Marilyne, asked me if I ever came across other Ghostzapper offspring. I mentioned that I didn’t see them frequently, but I would be excited to have more of them in my barn due to their usually outstanding brains and big moving, lovely ways of going. It was not a totally random question. Her Ghostzapper, Sir Sidney, is a beast of a horse but also the kindest, easiest going, perfect match for an ammy. I’d take 10 of him.

So last week, when Jade Favre posted a plain bay for sale in Louisiana with Malibu Moon and Ghostzapper (as well as Dynaformer on the damside) in the pedigree, I only asked a couple questions before sending the money along and setting up shipping. In my experience, those sires produce stellar brains and excellent athletes. From the two pictures attached to his ad, Louisiana Moon looked super balanced and well-put-together, and he had an alert, intelligent eye.

Louisiana Moon’s pedigree that rang all of my “buy now” bells. Pedigree from

Here’s what I asked:

  • What are you asking for him?
  • Anything I should be concerned about?
  • Do you have jog video?
  • Where should I send the $$?

Here’s what I did not ask:

  • How tall is he?

After I had purchased him and set up shipping, a friend asked me how old he was (2014) and how tall. I realized I neither knew, nor was worried about not knowing. To get her an answer, I asked Jade. “He’s around 15.3-16-h, but the tape was blowing out of my hand so I’m not entirely sure.” Fantastic.

Louisiana Moon’s conformation pic from the track. This photo only hints at how impressive he is. Photo by Jade Favre.

Yes, actually fantastic.

Over the years, I have become partial to the more compact horses. If I had to have a favorite height (what an odd thing to say), I would go with a sporty 16+-16.1h horse. Rhodie (Western Ridge) who is back on the upswing of being a good dragon, is a joy to ride over bigger xc fences and he is around 16+hands. I know that he has all the spring and scope and power necessary to clear things AND all the catty footwork to not get hung up due to a hard-to-compress stride.

Rhodie (Western Ridge) taking it easy over a Novice fence at Poplar Place Farms. Photo by Cora Williamson.

I was not always partial to “little” horses. The horse I have the most recognized eventing miles on and love dearly is Sarah Edward’s CU Zip To Dixie (“Phoenix”), a 17.3h Appendix. That brave, jumps-the-moon-and-beyond goofball sure made those big fences look tiny. With him though, I always struggled with dressage in the small arena (but that’s as much about me as it is about him). Also, collecting him and putting his huge stride together through the combinations was almost enough to keep me up at night. On my more sports-car-version Thoroughbreds, those combinations are actually fun. Dressage… well that should be what is keeping me up at night, but well… we’ll get there.

CU Zip To Dixie making easy work of Training Level at Pine Top in 2015. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Edwards.

So when still riding that fantastic giant Appendix, I went looking to buy my first adult personal horse, I put out an ISO (In Search Of) that looks a lot like what I see all the time today. Mine was more wordy, because… it’s me… but it can be distilled to this: “ISO OTTB under 6 years old, 16.2+ with Upper Level Potential.” And over and over, I turned down 16 and 16.1 hand horses because they did not meet my arbitrary height-of-shoulder cut off. In the end, a month or two later, as I got desperate to fill the stall, I ended up with a 16.1h gangly three-year-old Forrest (JC Don’t Noc It) who would grow to 16.3h and become a tank. Funny story, while I love Forrest to pieces, my 16h dragon out-jumps him in form and scope every single time.

Day one with the scrawny, 16.1-ish Forrest in 2017. Photo by author.

Photo of the by-then-16.3h Forrest in 2021 looking like he’s about to pop his girth heading into the jumper ring. Photo by the Kivu Team.

I have learned a couple things over the years. One of them is this: One really doesn’t need 17h+ or 16.2h+ horse. There’s nothing wrong with them, but why draw arbitrary lines around good horses…? Yes, I know people are tall; yes, I know they have long legs. Yes, I know there’s a particular “look” that many folks want to achieve when riding. But to exclude the good ones because they are a touch too short seems silly and often tells me more about the newness of the buyer to this game than about their ability and desire. If you want great examples, look at Kyle Carter (6’2″), or William Fox Pitt (6’5″). They’re all quite tall, but they are not riding 19-h event horses to match.

Here’s me (5’9″) on Snaps (Mr. KW) when he measured 15.3 at the hip and 15.2+-and-change at the shoulder. He might be “little” but damn is he nice, and I won’t be surprised when he and Aimee Colbath (his new owner, who is taller than me) are out showing the bigger horses how it is done. Photo by Kelly Robison.

But hey, as I said, I have been there. I am 5’9″ and mostly all legs. I was once insulted (maybe?) when I went to get measured for a road bike — back in the days when I did things other than just horses. The guy was talking shop. I thought I needed a 57″ bike (measuring the tube in relation to how long your torso is), I mean, hey, I’m tall. I need an accordingly long bike. Due to how odd a statement this was, a decade later, I still remember it: “No honey, you need a 52″, your torso is nowhere as long as your legs. It’s a good thing you’re not at all proportional or you’d be really tall.” I didn’t buy a flashy new bike and I went home squinting about how disproportionate I guess I was. In the end, I bought a used 1982 52″ Trek Elance from Craigslist, did a fun solo trip from Atlanta to Savannah and ended up deciding that I didn’t care that all of my disproportionate length had gone to my legs.

My appropriately-small bike and all the gear at Skidaway Island after the long haul from Atlanta. Photo by author.

So… that said, here are a few more things about horse height besides the fact that it really doesn’t matter that much:

A slab-sided horse will take up less leg than a broad, big-boned beast. Monk (Sydster) who I love dearly, is 16.3h at this point and narrow as the day is long. He is still growing and filling out, but I feel bigger on him than I do on Madigan. Madigan is 16.1h and growing but is also a damn tank whose legs and joints look like they belong to a draft horse. Further, in my experience (and I bet there is some research out there on this with OCDs and tendon/ligament issues), it is not a one-to-one/immediate cause and effect situation, but the taller the Thoroughbred, the harder they have been for me to keep sound as they transition to their new off-track lives.

Monk (Sydster) showing off his slab-sided-ness while we change up his feed program to pack on more pounds. Photo by Kelly Robison.

Also worth noting the obvious — horses grow. They both grow in height and width and sometimes keep on growing until they are seven years old. So, when one is not buying that 16 or 16.1h three-year-old because the horse has not hit the 16.2h sweet spot, I just shake my head. Louis (Unbridled Bayou) filled an extra spot on my trailer a year ago as a 15.3h, narrow, immature four-year old goober. Today at five, he is a solid 16.2hands, at least three inches broader, and still growing. He’s also one of the loveliest things in the barn… I am not complaining there, but I would love his talent just as much if he topped out two inches shorter.

The now 16.2h Louis (Unbridled Bayou) gamely taking on the water at Poplar Place Farms. Photo by Cora Williamson.

Louis at 15.3h and awkward in the post-track field at Winchester Place Thoroughbreds in December, 2021. Photo by Laura Newell.

Further, most Thoroughbreds grow in a rocking horse motion — first the shoulder, then the hip (or hip then shoulder). They go through periods of packing on the pounds and then expending the stored energy to push up another half of an inch up-front of behind. Sometimes, they’ll measure 15.3 at the shoulder and 16+ at the hip and you’ll feel like you are riding a child’s slide on the playground. Usually, they even out and take on the shapes brought to their genetics by their dam and sire, but it is fun to feel them change through the months and years until they are finally done growing and you wake up to find a stunning, filled-out, balanced athlete that looks only a little like the built-for-speed version who came off the track.

So to close up here, I’ll leave you with one of my new favorite photos. Here’s 15.1h Aspenfiveoneseven, piloted by my working student, Alanah Giltmier at this past weekend’s jumper show. The pint-sized, short-coupled Thoroughbred might be compact, but there’s no shortage of scope or future for this pair.

Alanah Giltmier aboard Aspenfiveoneseven at the Big Cheese Eventing Jumper Show this past weekend at Ashland Farms. Photo by the Kivu Team.

And now I’m going to hustle to get out to the barn to spend time with the new kids. Louisiana Moon (the Malibu Moon x Ghostzapper) arrived yesterday evening along with “Uno” (Hold ‘Em Paul) a huge Flashback colt. The hulking gray chonkster is stunning, but there’s definitely something special and impressive about that compact “little” bay… I cannot wait to get him under saddle and see what he has to offer the sport world.

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