Horses come in different sizes depending on their breed and their native environment. Interestingly enough, while some of today’s horses boast impressive heights, their ancestors were actually rather small and incredibly agile. Nowadays, a horse can measure somewhere between 5 hands and 18 hands in height, all thanks to human intervention and selective breeding practices. Today I wanted to talk a bit about the smallest horses and horse breeds in the world, ponies included.
While some of these horses owe their small stature to a condition called dwarfism, others are perfectly healthy and act just like a regular horse would. Naturally, they’re not as strong and they’re not used for riding or any farm work. Instead, the world’s smallest horses appear on TV shows and tour around the world alongside their owners and caretakers.
Before we get into the smallest pony breeds, let’s talk about the 3 horses that were officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest of their kind.
Black Beauty (World’s Smallest Pony from 2001 to 2006).
Black Beauty was one of the first record holders for the title of World’s Smallest Pony. The horse was included in the famous book in 2001, and it held on to the record until 2006 when it was overthrown by another incredibly small horse.
In order to qualify as a record-holder, Black Beauty had to be carefully measured by a veterinarian. Indeed, this very small and beautiful horse measured in at 12 inches or 3 hands (30 cm) in height and weighed less than 10 lb (4.5 kg).
As she grew, she gained a bit of height, and at the age of 5, she was 18.5 inches or 4.6 hands (47 cm) at her withers. She lost a bit of height later on, as she was 17 inches or 4.2 hands (43 cm) at her last measurement.
Thumbelina (World’s Smallest Horse).
Thumbelina was not as healthy as Black Beauty was, but she was definitely smaller. She suffered from a condition called dwarfism, which caused quite a bit of health problems. She had shorter than normal legs, a slightly deformed skull, as well as other less obvious issues.
She wasn’t debilitated in any way, though, and she lived a healthy life surrounded by people who cared for her deeply. She went on tours across the United States and met the world’s tallest horse, Big Jake.
Thumbelina became the world’s smallest horse as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006 when she overthrew Black Beauty. She measured 17 inches or 4.2 hands at the time, and she weighed just 57 pounds.
She was born in 2002 in St. Louis, Missouri, and she died in 2018.
Einstein (World’s Smallest Stallion).
Einstein is a famous miniature horse from New Hampshire. When he was born, he weighed just 6 pounds (2.7kg) and he wasn’t taller than 14-inches or 3.5 hands. Unlike Thumbelina, Einstein does not have dwarfism. He genuinely looks and behaves like a miniaturized horse.
While he eventually outgrew Thumbelina and couldn’t retain the record of the smallest horse in the world, he is still the world’s smallest stallion by any measure. Einstein is alive and well at the time of writing. He has his own website and Facebook page, where his owners post frequent updates about his whereabouts and activities.
Now that we’ve talked about these individual small horses, let’s have a look at the world’s smallest horse breeds.
The Yonaguni Horse.
Yonaguni is a small horse breed that originates in the Yonaguni island of south-western Japan, right on Taiwan’s doorstep. What’s interesting is that Yonaguni is just one of a total of eight horse breeds that are native to Japan. That being said, you’d think that this warmblood horse would receive a little more attention and recognition.
Sadly, in 2007, the FAO listed this small horse breed as critically endangered. In 1968, there were 210 Yonaguni horses in total, but by the 1980s, only 50 or so were left. In 2008, the numbers rose slightly to 85, but the horse is still critically endangered to this day.
As far as its actual height is concerned, the Yonaguni is usually around 11.2 hands or 11.3 hands at the withers. Males are generally a bit taller than females. When it comes to coat color, these horses are generally bay, tan, brown, or roan.
Yet another Japanese horse breed, the Noma Pony also faced extinction. The origins of this small horse date all the way back to the 17th century, and they are related to the old Mongolian horse. As I mentioned before, the Noma Pony was dangerously close to extinction, as only six of them remained in the world at some point.
In the early days of the 20th century, the Japanese needed better and taller warhorses, and so they introduced Thoroughbred blood to most of their native breeds, the Noma included. For a while, it wasn’t even legal to breed small horses, as they simply couldn’t perform the tasks that were required of them. A Noma horse is usually around 10.1 hands or 40 inches tall, which makes it ill-suited for heavy draft work or speed.
Thankfully, in 1978, a breeding society took matters into their own hands and made some progress to preserve and increase this breed’s numbers. In Noma, these horses are not crossbred, which means that they have retained their purity. Apart from being used as pack animals, these small horses are sometimes saddled for children.
As its name suggests, the Shetland Pony hails from the Shetland Isles of Scotland. These ponies have been around since the Bronze Age, which makes them one of the oldest breeds of horses, not just one of the smallest. Even though they are quite small, these horses are sometimes used for cart pulling and plowing farmland.
The Shetland Pony is usually between 7 hands and 10.5 hands tall, and it has a heavy coat as well as short but strong legs. It is a very intelligent horse that’s quite easy to work with due to its obedient nature. Moreover, this pony is being used for riding, driving, and pack to this day.
The organization responsible for protecting this small horse is the Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society. This society was founded in 1980 in order to maintain the horse’s purity and well-being. Pony breeds related to the Shetland include the Pony of the Americas, as well as the Deutsches Classic Pony of Germany.
You’d think that the Miniature Horse basically refers to just any small breed of horse, but due to the efforts of the American Miniature Horse Association, the Miniature Horse is a very distinct horse breed. Following the guidelines of the same association, a Miniature cannot exceed 38 inches at the withers, which means that a horse over 9.5 hands can no longer be considered a miniature horse.
The main controversy surrounding the miniature horse is whether this should be considered a horse or a pony. Normally, any equine under 14.2 hands is named a pony, but some miniature breeds have retained the horse moniker, and so the breed registry lists them as such.
Miniature Horses were developed for the first time in Europe in the 1600s. By 1765, they were frequently bought off by the rich and kept as pets. To this day, people buy them as family pets, mostly due to their kind and friendly mannerisms. Moreover, some miniature horses take on the role of service animals for disabled people.
They can take part in competitions such as horse show type events, equine agility shows, and driving.
The Falabella is also a miniature horse, but it is arguably the smallest horse breed in the world, which is why I wanted to give it its own special section. Rarely taller than 8 hands or 32 inches, the Falabella horse was imported into the United States in 1962. At first, they were made to drive small stagecoaches in parades in order to promote a winery.
Falabellas are often considered intelligent and docile horses. They can only be ridden by small children, which is why they mostly appear in-hand at horse shows. They have the capacity to learn how to drive, and they can jump obstacles as high as 3 feet provided they are not ridden.
As with most miniature horses, Falabellas can also be used as guide animals.
The Icelandic is a horse breed developed in Iceland, and it is still being bred pure in that part of the world for the better part of 1,000 years. While this horse might share some similarities with ponies, most registries recognize it as a full-blown horse. However, it’s worth noting that the breed was developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.
While small in stature, these are powerful and long-lived horses that are used for sheepherding work, showing, racing, and leisure. In Iceland, it is illegal to import horses, which is probably how the breed has managed to maintain its purity to this day. Moreover, exported equines are not allowed to return to Iceland.
One thing that makes this horse stand out is that it has two more gaits alongside the four main ones. The first additional gait is a four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt, and the second is a pace called a skeið, flugskeið, or “flying pace”.
Icelandic horses weigh between 730 and 840 lb, and they usually stand between 13 and 14 hands.
What is the difference between a small horse and a pony?
One of the most common confusions in the equine world is between smaller (miniature) horses and ponies. The differences between them are not always as noticeable as we might think. Actually, some people might even mistake ponies for foals and the other way around.
The main difference between ponies and horses is size, as well as growing speed. Ponies will remain smaller than regular horses their entire lives, but will also reach their maximum size faster. A regular horse might not reach its full height until it is 6 or 7 years old. While ponies are very small at birth, they grow up very fast in their first year of life and end up being as tall as their mothers.
Generally speaking, a pony is 14.2 hands tall if you ride English, and just under 14 hands if you’re a western rider. Ponies are usually more intelligent and more stoic than horses, and they have a tendency to avoid work. By contrast, many horses, especially draft horses, are very willing to work and will do so for as long as the owner instructs them to. Even the smaller horse breeds will comply.
When it comes to pulling power, ponies can pull heavier loads in relation to their own body weight. They have stronger bones and tougher hoofs, and they can withstand extreme variations in temperature.
There are a few differences in feeding habits as well. While a horse might need considerably more food in order to become full, a pony can make do with far less, and not just because it is smaller. On the same pasture, a pony will be able to get a nutritious meal on grass that would otherwise starve a normal horse. On a related matter, ponies tend to put on weight much faster, and so it’s very easy to overfeed one if you’re not careful.
While some small horses are kept primarily for shows or for leisure purposes, some of them can perform farm work and can even pull carts without too many issues. Medium-to-small sized horses such as the Icelandic can also be ridden to a certain degree.
Depending on a number of factors, a pony might actually be a wiser investment for someone who’s looking for a smaller horse that’s easier to keep. Large horses require more maintenance, so to speak. When it comes to the smallest horse breeds, many of them are endangered or were very close to extinction at some point in history. Fortunately, associations and societies have stepped up and ramped up their conservation efforts.
If you have any suggestions or you would like me to add another breed of small horse to this list, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Let me know if you own any ponies, and feel free to share some details on their behavior and lifestyle.