The Falabella miniature horse of Argentina is a lillipution breed that retains the horse-size proportions, flashy coat patterns and graceful movement of its larger relative.
Standing about two and a half feet tall at the withers, the exotic miniature horse of Argentina was bred to impress, but it took several hundred years—and generations of passionate Buenos Aires horsemen—to achieve the patriarch’s vision:
A tiny, perfectly formed horse. Before the centuries-long project came to fruition, however, the flashiest coat patterns from Appaloosas and pintos were sprinkled into the Falabella genetic recipe, creating a miniature horse breed that is nothing less than remarkable.
The Falabella’s origins, like most new world horses, winds eventually back to the Spanish Conquistadores, whose Iberian and Andalusian stock repopulated the Americas with horses during and after their crusades (the prehistoric horses indigenous to North and South America were long since extinct).
More recent Falabella ancestors include the South American Criollo, now considered a “native” horse of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. It was in the mid 1800s in Argentina, however, where the Falabella’s story truly began.
In 1845, a gentleman named Patrick Newtall noticed on the grasslands, or pampas, just south of Buenos Aires, a number of peculiarly small horses amongst the remudas of the native Indians. Managing to acquire some of the smaller animals, Newtall began a targeted breeding project and, within 10 years, was able to create a herd of beautifully built horses—all under one meter in height.
In 1879, Newtall shared his knowledge—and his stock of small equines—with son-in-law Juan Falabella. Falabella continued the program, and, through selective crosses that introduced Welsh and Shetland Pony, as well as small Thoroughbred bloodlines, further reduced the breed’s stature. The trends continued through successive generations of both man and horse, until the phenotype of the miniature horse breed—known as the Falabella—was formalized in the 1940s by descendant Julio Falabella. Julio preferred—and bred for—flashy pinto and Appaloosa coat patterns, markings many Falabella horses retain to this day.
In addition to creating a horse as small as 28 inches tall and establishing a written breed registry, Julio is also credited with organizing the first Falabella Association, the Establecimientos Falabella (which evolved into the Asociacion de Criadores de Caballos Falabella, or The Falabella Horse Breeders Association).
Julio Falabella was not only a knowledgeable horse breeder, but an enterprising businessman, and the first to actively promote the Falabella brand outside of Argentina. By publicizing the equines’ miniature size, attractive horse-like conformation, and exclusive ancestry, Julio Falabella established his miniature horses as rare and prestigious animals. They soon were highly prized by wealthy enthusiasts in many countries—including Jackie Kennedy, who owned several.
By the 1960s the Falabella was getting an impressive amount of press in publications such as TIME, Western Horseman, National Geographic and other magazines. In the 1965 issue of The Horseman’s Year, European Shirley Marler recounts her adventures importing three mares and a stallion from the herd “that roam the Pampas on Senior Falabellas ranch in Buenos Aires.”
Aided by an Argentinian friend who selected the animals for her (he was the same gentleman who had selected Jackie Kennedy’s Falabellas, so Marler felt confident she would receive excellent stock), she arranged for four little equines to be placed in crates and transported by ship to London. The horses quickly became media darlings, celebrated for their size, of course, but also for their hardy constitutions—preferring pasture land and plain hay over stalls and supplements.
In 1962, the Regina Winery in California imported twelve Falabellas, which became a popular tourist attraction and created the first “celebrity” Falabella: Chianti, a magnificent spotted leopard appaloosa stallion.
Today, Chianti’s name appears in the pedigrees of many contemporary Falabellas, and the purity of the original Argentinian bloodlines is assiduously monitored and protected. Generations of careful husbandry have established stable genetic characters in the Falabella, enabling natural procreation in the breed with predictable results. Only a horse that has a pedigree of uninterrupted bloodlines from the animals originally bred by the Falabella family are considered genuine Falabellas.
Although Falabellas may be registered in other miniature horse registries such as the American Miniature Horse Association, only purebred, documented (or DNA tested), Falabellas may be registered as such.
The Falabella’s most obvious attribute is its tiny size; adults stand a mere 28-34 inches at the withers and Falabella foals may be only 12 inches tall at birth! Yet despite their diminutive stature, the Falabella retains the conformation and proportions of a full-sized horse. Body types may approximate the classic stock horse physique, or exhibit a sleeker Arabian style figure.
Yet the Falabella is far more unusual than its shocking size. Falabellas consistently live to twice the age of most horses, often to 40 or 42 years of age.
Additionally, Senor Julio Falabella (1912-1980) maintained that his little horses–no matter their size—possessed physical hearts as big as normally-sized horses. He credited the proportionally large heart size with their unusually long and vital lifespan. Undeniably easy keepers, these pocket ponies retain the resilience required by their ancestors to survive the arid pampas of Argentina.
In the 1980s, both French and Japanese veterinarians confirmed that Falabellas possess a lesser number of lumbar vertebra, and that from one to three pairs of ribs are “missing” from the horses. Italian and Australian vets established similar findings (though it is not known if all Falabellas are so structured, or only those originating in Argentina.)
Falabella gestation is also noteworthy, often 13 months long instead of the usual 11 months for most horses. The most common Falabella coat colors are black or brown, but bay, chestnut, pinto and appaloosa markings are not unusual, and highly sought after.
Falabellas are relatively easily to handle, due to their size, and often cherished as companion animals. They are also used for driving, trick training, and in–hand jumping. Some Falabellas have been trained as guide animals for the blind.