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We have a new player in our group playing a forest gnome ranger. Now that he has hit 3rd level, he is wondering if his character is small enough / light enough to ride a panther animal companion as a mount.

Can a gnome ranger use his animal companion as a mount?

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Yes, if your DM thinks a panther has the right anatomy.

The gnome is Small (PHB 37) and the panther Medium (PHB 308). The relevant rule says:

A willing creature that is at least one size larger than you and that has an appropriate anatomy can serve as a mount (PHB 198)

Your ranger's animal companion is certainly willing. It does depend on whether your DM agrees that a panther has the relevant anatomy, but riding felines is a solid fantasy trope even if it is 'unrealistic' to think felines have the proper back.

Respect to @SevenSidedDie for the links above. By the Power of Grayskull may his comment never be removed from this answer!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also gnome ranger riding a panther is ridiculously awesome, but I'm not sure the rule of cool has become a core D&D rule...yet! \$\endgroup\$ – harlandski Mar 4 '15 at 17:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ In reality a great cat doesn't have the "right" anatomy (lack of the specialised musculature needed to bear a rider), but Skeletor is awesome and disagrees so that's a strong argument to consider for overriding realism. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 4 '15 at 18:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ If a weasel can ride a woodpecker, surely a gnome on a panther is plausible enough. ;p \$\endgroup\$ – Ilmari Karonen Mar 4 '15 at 23:01
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I would think that being quadrapedal without any spines or physical anatomy stopping someone from mounting it would count as "appropriate anatomy." I mean while having a longer, more flexable spine without as much support as some animals that can be ridden might not make it an ideal mount, it is plausable. Other than not having a mane to hold onto; maybe it will need an appropriate harness. A panther should be able to handle the weight of a forest gnome; with a base weight of 35-40lbs. Leopards can carry animals weighing up to 3x their body weight into a tree to eat, and male leopards can weigh up to 200lbs. They are the stronger climbers of the pathers, but still a fair example. Tigers are the larger and stronger of the panthers and and weigh between 150 and 675lbs (Siberian). A 150lb tiger may look a little funny or have trouble with a 40lb gnome and gear, but the larger ones should be able to 'theoretically' handle it. In the end of course, it is the DMs call, but I dont think it can be ruled out based purely on anatomy and physics.

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