What makes a pony a pony? It’s not as straightforward as you may think. Different breeds, conformation, and types all play a factor in determining whether an equine falls under the classification of a pony or a horse. If your pony didn’t come with registration papers, you (or your vet) can often approximate their age by looking at their teeth.
Pony lifespans are often longer than a horse. An average horse lives 25-30 years—ponies can live ten years longer. While genetics and a little luck play a factor in determining a pony’s lifespan, there are many things within your control to promote a long, healthy life.
*Cover photo courtesy of Johanna & Bunny
Pony vs. Horse: What’s the Difference?
The main distinguishing factor between horses and ponies is height. Measured in hands, horses are 14.2 hands high (hh) and taller. Ponies are shorter than 14.2 hh.
When it comes to measuring equine height, one hand equals four inches.
To complicate things, different breeds have varying standards and terminology. For example, Arabian horses are referred to as horses, even if they measure below 14.2 hh. On the other hand, the Connemara Pony is considered to be a pony, even though the upper range in height for this breed is 15 hh. Icelandic horses, while pony-sized, have always been referred to as horses. Since they are the only equid breed on the island, the natives call them horses. If you call them ponies, you risk offending the owner (and maybe the horse too!).
Conformation (how the horse is built/structured) also comes into play when distinguishing horses from ponies. Miniature horses, for example, are supposed to mimic horse-sized conformation in a much smaller package. These animals are referred to as horses even though they are so small they are measured in inches instead of hands.
Tradition could also be blamed for some of the confusion—take the polo pony, for instance. All equids that compete, horse-sized or not, are referred to as polo ponies.
One piece of terminology we can agree on is that of the baby horse; horse or pony-sized, they are always referred to as foals.
How Long Do Ponies Live?
The average life expectancy of a horse is 25-30 years; the average life expectancy of a pony is usually longer. Also notable is that it is more common to see ponies ridden later in life than their full-sized counterparts. There are theories that ponies are hardier/healthier than horses, contributing to both a longer lifespan and a longer under-saddle career.
Pony Stages of Life
A pony’s life is divided into stages, from birth until death. The gestation period for horses and ponies is the same—11 months. Newborn ponies up until a year old, are called foals. Female ponies are called fillies until they reach four years old, when they are “graduate” to mare status. Male ponies are called colts until four—then, if they have been gelded, they are referred to as a gelding. Colts that are still able to breed after the age of four are called stallions.
Learn more in our horse gender terminology guide.
Similar to horses, ponies may keep growing until approximately five years old. Different breeds will mature at different rates—some may not finish growing for another year or so.
Ponies are considered “Seniors” between 15 and 20 years old.
How Do Ponies Grow and Develop?
Ponies grow similarly to horses. Their gestation periods are the same. The main difference is their size when they are finished growing. For example, a Quarter Horse may be called a horse until it is fully-grown at five years old. If the horse is under 14.2 hh, it will be referred to as a “Quarter Pony” going forward.
On the other hand, some pony breed registries may grant temporary registration to animals under three years old; at three, they must be measured to ensure they do not exceed any designated breed height requirements.
How to Increase Your Pony’s Lifespan
While genetics certainly play a role in lifespan, several factors are within your control. Nutrition, veterinary care (including dental care!), exercise, and environment all play a role.
Help your pony live a long, healthy life:
- Formulate their diet to meet their specific needs—ensure they maintain a healthy weight and are receiving a balanced ration (vitamins, minerals, pre & probiotics, added biotin, etc)
- Make any changes to the diet gradually! The leading cause of death in horses is colic—horses and ponies have delicate digestive systems. Since they can’t throw up, closely monitoring what goes in is critical.
- Have your vet perform a physical once a year (more frequently if needed or if you have specific concerns.) Establishing a baseline and checking in regularly will help catch any issues early. Your vet can also check their teeth regularly and float their teeth to keep them in top shape.
- Provide adequate exercise for your pony—movement is good! It helps maintain muscle tone, joint health, heart and pulmonary function.
- Horses and ponies are herd animals—they thrive in a social environment. If a pony buddy is out of the question, other animals like goats can make good companions.
How You Can Tell a Pony’s Age
One benefit to breed registries is how easy it is to find and track information, including birth dates. However, if you rescue a pony and don’t have registration papers or records from the previous owner, it can be much harder to figure out their age. The older the pony, the harder it will be to pinpoint their age, as different animals will age at varying rates.
A few physical characteristics of a senior pony include:
- Loss of muscle or topline, a “swaybacked” appearance
- A drooping lower lip
- Gray hairs around the eyes or muzzle
- Hollowed-out depressions around the eyes
- Teeth—wear and color
How to Tell a Pony’s Age by Teeth
The most accurate way to tell a horse or pony’s age is by examining their teeth:
- Ponies will have two sets of teeth during their lifetime; their baby teeth, also called “milk” teeth, and their adult teeth. Baby teeth will be fully erupted by one year old. By three, adult teeth will begin replacing baby teeth. By five, all baby teeth should have been replaced by adult teeth.
- Adult teeth, or permanent teeth, have cups. These are indented areas in the middle of each tooth. As the horse ages, the cups will wear down until approximately 12 years of age when they will be completely gone.
- A dark, vertical groove called the “Galvayne’s Groove” appears at approximately 10 years old; by 20 it begins to disappear and by 30 it is completely gone.
- The angle where the upper teeth meet the lower teeth changes as the pony ages. This is called the “angle of incidence.” As horses age, the incisors will slant more forward and outward, another telling sign to help determine age.
Looking for more info on how to tell your pony’s age by their teeth? Here’s a video!
How Old is My Pony in Human Years
Trying to equate your pony’s age to human years isn’t straightforward, as it is not a linear relationship. While a one-year old pony can be compared to a 6 year old child, there are still many differences between the two. Foals can walk within a few hours of birth, while it takes human children around 18 months. A 10 year old pony is not equivalent to a 60 year old human—a pony at 10 is more similar to a human in their early 30’s.
Senior Pony Care
Senior pony care will be very similar to senior horse care. Maintaining a healthy body weight, providing adequate nutrition and exercise, and ensuring appropriate veterinary care will all help your pony enjoy their golden years. Comparatively senior ponies tend to fare slightly better than senior horses.
Common Senior Pony Health Problems
While senior ponies are less prone to issues than senior horses, you should still be on the lookout for:
- Unexpected weight loss or gain
- Lameness or laminitis
- Dental problems
- Changes in vision or tearing of the eyes
Senior Ponies and Weight Loss/Gain
Ponies generally run on the rounder side versus being labeled a “hard keeper,” but every animal is different. It’s important to establish a healthy baseline, monitor your pony’s weight changes and address them before it becomes an issue. Dental issues such as teeth wear out may cause weight loss and indicate that it is time to change feeds.
Senior Pony Feeding Care
As ponies age, their digestive systems change. Senior feeds are specifically formulated to be easily digestible. They can be soaked to make them easier to eat for ponies with tooth loss or dental issues.
Learn more about how to feed senior horses and ponies.
Senior Pony Joint Care
Joint care is important at any age, but can be even more important later in life. There are many supplements available to help maintain healthy joint function and manage any discomfort. Common ingredients include:
- Chondroitin sulfate
- Hyaluronic acid
- Devil’s Claw
Senior Pony Dental Care
Dental care is important throughout your pony’s lifespan. Senior ponies require regular exams and dental care—your vet can help determine when it may be appropriate to switch your senior pony from a hay-based diet to a complete feed.
Senior Pony Care in the Winter
Winter months can be especially challenging for a senior pony. If you live in a cold state, or even a warm state that gets an unusually cold snap, pay a little extra attention to make sure your pony is comfortable:
- Consider adding a blanket for extra warmth if the coat is insufficient for the temperatures.
- Make sure clean water is available. This can be extra hard during the winter when buckets may freeze.
- Increase forage during extra cold weather. Forage digestion helps generate body heat!
- Soak alfalfa cubes for a special treat in cold weather. A warm mash will help provide additional roughage and aid in water consumption.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do ponies live longer than horses?
On average, ponies and horses have similar life expectancies. Certain breeds of ponies, however, have longer life expectancies than larger breeds of horses.
What is the oldest pony?
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest pony was named Sugar Puff. He lived to 56 years old. Sugar Puff was a Shetland-Exmoor pony.
How long do small ponies live?
Life expectancy is most affected by diet/nutrition, available veterinary care, and genetics. While certain breeds do tend to live longer than others, size alone is not a significant determining factor.
How long do Welsh ponies live?
The life expectancy of a Welsh pony is around 35 years.
How long do mini ponies (horses) live?
On average, mini horses live 25-35 years, which is approximately 1/3 longer than your average horse. The oldest miniature horse lived to over 50.
We hope this article has helped you to learn more about ponies, how they are classified and how to care for them. Ponies are fun, charismatic, sometimes mischievous animals that make a wonderful addition to any barn. They make great companions for larger horses and foals and can be a fun ride for small adults or children.
Though senior ponies are less prone to health issues compared to senior horses, learning to properly care for your pony will help keep them happy and healthy longer.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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- Horse Hay FAQs (List of Types of Hay, The Best Hay for Horses, etc.