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Though miniature horses have been bred for at least 400 years, it is often misunderstood just what defines these diminutive charmers other than their small stature. Miniature equines come in a variety of coat colors and patterns. In fact, some can be cross-registered as a Miniature Appaloosa or Miniature American Paint Horse. Like all horses, confirmation is variable, and dependent upon their particular pedigree.
Most historians agree that the contemporary miniature horse breed is a derivative of many sources, crafted through centuries of selective breeding. Some claim that small, finely bred Arabian horses contributed to gradually reducing the size of the breed, though the story contains significant additional chapters. Miniature horse genetics are complex, accounting for the fact that some miniature equines possess the phenotype of horses, albeit tiny, while some are more pony-like.
Additionally, some miniatures exhibit the physical characteristics of dwarfism, both in conformation as well as size. Creating incrementally smaller and smaller size animals is accomplished partially through the practice of inbreeding. As a result, all miniature horses are thought to carry some of the genetic markers for dwarfism, whether expressed physically or not.
While perhaps upping the cute quotient, the resulting health issues created by pronounced dwarfism often prove significant; the horse’s body may stop growing while the organs continue developing and enlarging in compromised physical space, or the miniature animal may have orthopedic malformations and soundness issues.
As with all horses, preferences among miniature horse breeders and owners vary, resulting in a wide range of desired traits and looks. Numerous breeds of miniatures exist throughout the world with distinct nomenclature, such as the Dartmoor Pony, Pygmy Clydesdale, Falabella, Miniature Toy Horse, UK Shetland Pony and more! In fact, there are over thirty registries in the English speaking world alone, each with their own requirements.
In the United States, the American Miniature Horse Association requires both parents to be AMHA registered and to have met the requirements of being “miniature versions of well-balanced horses, possessing confirmation characteristics found in most equine breeds,” the breed objective being “the smallest possible perfect horse.”
The AMHA accepts temporarily registered young Miniatures, who are eligible to be permanently registered if, at the age of five years, they do not exceed 34 inches in height at the withers. Additionally, the American Miniature Horse Registry (founded in 1972 as a division of the American Shetland Pony Club) has both “A” and “B” divisions with slightly different requirements. While it is possible to purchase a rescued miniature horse or find one at auction, the purchase price from a breeder can run from $1,000-$200,000.
The miniature horse has enjoyed a colorful history amongst the castles and manors of European royalty. In the 17th century, they were bred and kept as pets for the Hapsburg nobility and records from the court of King Louis XIV (circa 1650) reveal miniature horses graced the Palace of Versailles with their enchanting presence. The horses’ early accommodations in the United States however, proved less than luxurious. It is believed that the first small horse arrived here in 1888, bred from the bloodlines of English and Dutch mine horses for use in the Appalachian coal mines. Miniatures were brought to the attention of the American public in 1962, when Argentinian Julio Falabella presented three pygmy ponies to Robert Kennedy and Time and Newsweek photographed them grazing on the White House lawn.
Personality-wise, according to the AMHA, miniatures possess the “same reactions and motivations as large-size horses with “temperaments and abilities varying with the individual.” Miniature horses excel in a variety of disciplines, including driving, halter and jumping. Their generally affectionate and gentle natures along with easier upkeep than a full-size horse make them companionable pets; they have even been trained as superb guide animals for the blind!
(Originally published in the March/April 2012 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).