A while back, one of the regular commenters asked about horses that aren’t ridden—what about them? Since every breed of domesticated equine that I know of has had someone at least try to ride it (and then there’s the whole zebra question), there really isn’t any kind of horse that hasn’t had a human on its back at some point. The really really big ones can be uncomfortable to sit on, to say the least—try straddling your overstuffed sofa to get a sense of what it’s like, then imagine the sofa as mobile in a number of different directions at once, and sentient on top of that—but in terms of ability to carry the average human, there’s no question that a horse that size can do it.
The other end of the size spectrum is a different matter.
Horses can get pretty small when you consider that the upper end is well over eighty inches at the shoulder and over a ton in weight. The smallest horse on record at the moment is a mare named Thumbelina. She’s 17.5 inches (43cm) tall and weighs 57 pounds (26kg). Since a horse can comfortably carry about 20% of its own weight, up to 25-30% in some cases, she’s not going to be carrying anything heavier than a newborn baby.
Thumbelina’s size is the result of dwarfism. There is another, slightly taller horse in the UK named MicroDave, and a third, named Einstein, both of whom are very small but otherwise normal miniature horses.
Miniature horses as a breed are not dwarf horses, though dwarfism does occur (and is considered a fault, to the extent that horses who produce dwarf offspring are not supposed to be bred again). They’ve been bred specifically for small size—but they are not considered ponies. They’re called horses, and are bred to a horse-like standard of conformation, with the same general proportions and structure as, say, an Arabian or a Quarter Horse, but sized down to 34 inches/87cm and under.
It can get confusing. Horses and ponies are the same species, equus caballus. They’re fully able to interbreed, and genetically they’re all pretty much the same thing. (A pony is not a baby horse. The word for baby horse, or a baby pony to muddy the waters just a little bit further, is foal.)
The simplest difference is height at maturity. If the adult animal is under 14.2 hands (58 inches/147cm), it’s a pony. 14.2 and over, a horse.
Except when it’s not. Certain breeds are horses regardless of height: Arabian notably. Some breeds may be pony-sized but are called horses: Icelandic horses, Fjord horses, miniature horses including the Falabella, which is a separate breed of very small horse.
The difference there is in conformation and overall build and structure. Horses are longer and finer in the leg, with a longer neck and a smaller head, and generally are less luxuriant in mane, tail, and coat as well—though Icelandics would certainly argue with that. A pony is shorter, thicker, and furrier, and tends to be more suited to hard work in cold climates, versus the lighter, more gracile horse.
And yet one of the main source breeds of the mini is the Shetland, which is kind of the ultimate concept of pony. Short, stocky, very very furry. And wicked smart.
“Pony brain” is a well-known concept in the horse world. Horse brain by contrast is considered to be less aggressively clever and more cooperative in general, with less inclination to argue. The mini has horse brain, according to breed enthusiasts: sweet-tempered, laid back, and highly trainable.
However tiny the horse is, it’s still a horse, though the smaller size needs some accommodations. It eats the same diet, in significantly smaller quantities—obesity is a problem less because it’s genetic than because owners accustomed to feeding full-sized horses have trouble managing the much smaller portions needed to keep a mini running. It has the same digestive system, including the tendency toward colic. It’s handled and groomed and its feet are trimmed in much the same way, and training methods that work for full-sized horses also apply to minis. It tends toward a higher percentage of birthing issues because of its smaller size, and its teeth don’t size down in proportion with the rest of the animal, which can lead to dental problems.
One advantage a mini has over a full-sized horse (aside from the economy of feed and stabling) is longevity. Average horse life expectancy is around 25 years. Minis often make it into their thirties and even forties; in fact the Falabella registry is proud to declare that horses of this breed can expect to live forty years or longer, and keep their teeth to that age as well. Large horses tend to start losing theirs in their twenties, which makes it harder for them to chew their feed and therefore keep weight and condition.
Miniature horses may seem like a modern fad, the obverse of the coin that’s bred progressively larger draft horses. They’re certainly more popular and prevalent in the US than they were in the middle of the twentieth century. They crop up in the news pretty regularly–like that adorable little rescue guy who bonded with a goose (they found a home together! and the world cheered!).
But they’re not exclusively a contemporary phenomenon. Breeders were selecting for very small animals in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as pets for the nobility. In the nineteenth century, pit ponies labored in the mines of the United Kingdom and the United States—bred small to fit into the tunnels, and often kept underground their whole lives. Also in the nineteenth century, a breeder in Argentina took note of very small horses in the herds of the pampas, and gathered a herd of his own to produce what became the Falabella: tiny horses bred to the same standards of conformation and temperament as full-sized Arabians and Thoroughbreds.
So, what can you do with a tiny horse? Riding, as I noted above, isn’t going to be a major selling point—a horse that tops out around 250 to 300 pounds can’t carry more than 50 to 70 pounds of human. But a horse can pull half again his own weight; minis are often taught to drive. A tiny horse pulling a cart is one of the cutest things you’re likely to see. And they take it seriously. After all, they’re horses. It’s what they do.
Minis are also shown in hand like horses of larger breeds. There are even in-hand jumping classes—kind of like jumpers in dog agility—and they’re quick and intelligent for learning tricks. They can be housebroken, though they’re classed as livestock and they still need some space in order to thrive, so they aren’t a good option for city apartments.
One thing that’s become more common in recent years is therapeutic and service work. Minis are a great size for visiting hospitals and care homes, where the distinctive soft energy of the horse can work wonders for patients’ state of mind. They’re also starting to attract notice as service animals, including guide service for the blind.
Service horses have had a bit of press lately amid the controversy over the proliferation of fake service animals and untrained and uncertified emotional support animals in public spaces. Mini horses are now allowed on airplanes. The logistics are fascinating and somewhat complicated, but it can be done.
Service horses are as trainable as dogs, and minis are really quite portable. A small mini can get down an airplane aisle and fit in front of its human on the bulkhead, and can be kept in a house with a small yard and transported in an SUV.
What’s more, unlike a dog, he won’t have to retire after a decade or so. A mini can work as a service animal for twenty-five to thirty years. That’s huge in terms of both basic economics (selection, training) and the emotional cost of bonding with an animal.
Horses: they’re not just for transport anymore, particularly when they come in extra-small economy size.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.