© 2018, The Author(s). Size shifts may be a by-product of alterations in life history traits driven by natural selection. Although this approach has been proposed for islands, it has not yet been explored in continental faunas. The trends towards size decrease experienced by some hipparionins constitute a good case study for the application of a life history framework to understand the size shifts on the continent. Here, we analysed bone microstructure to reconstruct the growth of some different-sized hipparionins from Greece and Spain. The two dwarfed lineages studied show different growth strategies. The Greek hipparions ceased growth early at a small size thus advancing maturity, whilst the slower-growing Spanish hipparion matured later at a small size. Based on predictive life history models, we suggest that high adult mortality was the likely selective force behind early maturity and associated size decrease in the Greek lineage. Conversely, we infer that resource limitation accompanied by high juvenile mortality triggered decrease in growth rate and a relative late maturity in the Spanish lineage. Our results provide evidence that different selective pressures can precipitate different changes in life history that lead to similar size shifts.