No bigger than a large dog, the American Miniature Horse is less then 34" tall at the withers and weighs between 150 to 250 pounds. This tiny equine is popular in many countries and is known by several names such as the American Miniature Horse, Miniature Toy Horse, Miniature Pony, Falabella or Falabella Miniature Horse, Guide Horse, Minis and Dwarf Horse. They have been bred for centuries by selectively breeding horses and ponies of diminutive size. In prehistoric times, tiny horses were likely the products of having to survive harsh climates with limited food. Today, genetics has made it possible to breed specifically for size.
In 1879, the Falabella family of Argentina bred small horses found on the Pampas south of Buenos Aires, where these undersized horses have since been known as Falabellas. But long before that, many breeders in different countries were trying to create miniaturized horses.
As early as the 1600s, they were being bred as pampered pets for European kings and queens. Later they were used in the coal mines in the English Midlands, northern Europe. The first mention of a small horse being imported into the United States was in 1888. Some of these mine horses were brought in from Holland, West Germany, Belgium, and England in the 19th century and used in some Appalachian coal mines as recently as 1950 since the tunnels were small and full-sized horses were just too big to fit.
Small horses, European minis, ponies, and Falabella miniatures, all went into the breeding of the American Miniature Horse to produce a well-proportioned animal. However, depending on parentage, they may have characteristics of Shetland Ponies, Arabians, Hackney Ponies, Thoroughbreds, and others. This has resulted in a wide range of body types and every color and pattern in the equine palette. In fact, any color or marking pattern with any eye color is equally acceptable.
But over the past 100 years there has been disagreement regarding the origins of the genetic characteristics of Miniature Horses. Some tiny breeds, such as the Falabella horses of Argentina, were developed in a totally separate environment from the tiny European horses of the eighteenth century, and independent breeding programs have been established on every continent on the globe.
Some have noticed that miniature horse dwarfism and congenital defects are more prevalent in the USA than in foreign countries. American breeders claim that because the horses were bred exclusively for size, dwarfism traits have became commonplace in them, while overseas breeders have noted that the rate of dwarfism is less in those countries that have rejected the breeding of tiny horses or ponies with undesirable dwarf characteristics, or achondroplasia, as it is called in humans.
A dwarf is different from a miniature. Its teeth often don't match up properly; the head is too big for its neck; and it may have a pot belly. A horse with some dwarf traits may be perfectly healthy and be a good pet, but others have problems with bones and teeth that make life painful for them. Dwarfs cannot be registered as miniature horses, but as breeding improves, fewer dwarfs are born.
However, it is very clear that dwarf genes have deliberately been introduced into American Miniature horses and some "famous" miniature stud horses has obvious equine dwarfism characteristics. Bond Tiny Tim (19” tall, AMHA Registration number R 00015P) was said to have many dwarfism-related issues, yet he was bred extensively, passing-on potentially crippling genetic mutations to thousands of his descendents throughout the USA, therefore the Dwarf gene is floating around in many bloodlines today, and it is difficult to locate as the gene has not been identified.
Founded in 1978, in Arlington, Texas, the American Miniature Horse Association (AMHA) has registered nearly 160,000 horses and has more than 12,000 members in 37 countries and provinces. The AMHA's goal is to promote a standard of excellence and purity in the Miniature and to that end; they closed the stud book on December 31, 1987, so that only horses with AMHA-registered parents can be registered. Additionally, a foal is eligible to be temporarily registered as soon as it is born and if it is no taller than 34 inches when it reaches the age of 5 years, it can be permanently registered as a Miniature Horse. To ensure the accuracy of pedigrees, all foals born after December 31, 1995 must be blood-typed and/or DNA-tested before any of their offspring can be registered.
Practically anything you can do with a regular size horse can be done with a Miniature, except for riding. Minis should not be ridden by anyone over 60 pounds. They can be shown in classes at halter, in-hand hunter/jumper, obstacle courses, showmanship, single pleasure driving, country pleasure driving, roadster, multi-hitch driving, fine viceroy, liberty, costume conformation, and games. Outside the show world, many owners drive their Minis hitched to carts, wagons, or sleighs singly or in teams. A trained Miniature driving horse can pull two adults for ten miles with no difficulty. Children 3 to 4 years old and up routinely drive at home, in parades and in shows. People even let them come into the house to watch TV with them.
Miniature Horses are very good for visiting shut-ins; senior citizens in retirement homes that have pet visitation hours; and many have been trained as guide animals to assist the blind or the hearing impaired. They are also good for people with health problems or physical disabilities that can make it impossible to handle or ride a full-sized horse, but they can learn to drive a cart and enjoy their horses.
The natural gaits of the Miniature Horse are the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, but other gaits are easily taught, especially when the horses are used for driving carts. For example, the Collected Trot is rhythmic and the horse should look like it could keep this gait up all day; and The Working Trot is brisk and snappy without excessive speed. This gait should be animated and showy with a long stride that makes the horse appear to float off the ground when all 4 feet actually are off the ground.
A Miniature Horse enjoys human company and does not fear strangers, in fact, they are quite eager to please their handlers possibly because they get handled so much. A newborn weighs about 20 pounds and is between 16 and 21 inches tall, and it is easy to pick one up and carry it around. It is hard to resist hugging a fluffy foal as if it were a teddy bear. A small child may be intimidated by a normal sized horse, but that same child will be eager to hug a Miniature foal.
There seems to be a discrepancy in the Miniature's disposition. Breeders may say they are gentle and affectionate so that they can make more sales, but many owners complain they have been bitten by aggressive Minis. Without knowing the circumstances of these complaints, the horse may have been abused by the previous owner; or. it may be simply a case of not being gelded or spayed.
All stallions of all breeds can be aggressive, but gelding is a simple, inexpensive operation that can resolve territorial aggression and a hormone driven lack of manners. Even when no stallion is near, a mare's estrus (heat) cycles can cause unpredictable behavior - the equine equivalent of PMS. Spaying can resolve this also.
Horses do not possess complex reasoning skills, but Miniature Horses are quite intelligent and excel at tasks that require long-term memory skills. It has been shown that the more a horse learns, the greater their capacity for future learning, and with proper training, a horse can be taught to do almost anything, such as sit, lie down, pull up a blanket, turn out the light and go to sleep, or even catch a Frisbee.
The Guide Horse Foundation trains Minatures as Guide Horses for the Blind and part of the basic training includes learning 23 voice commands. Additionally they can be reliably housebroken and trained to paw at the door or make nickering noises. The American’s with Disabilities Act guarantees the right of any service animal to use public transportation, so it should be not unusual to see a Guide Horse on an airplane, riding in a taxi, or on an escalator.
Miniature Horses thrive in pastures, and one acre can support as many as three Miniature Horses, but hey are prone to overeat. Ideally they should not share their pasture with the larger breeds since one kick or bite could significantly injure the Mini.
Since owning a Miniature Horse can cost 1/10th that of maintaining a large horse and they can become as much a part of the family as a dog or a cat, they have become extremely popular as companion animals that live 20 to 30 years.