| History of the breed
Over the centuries and from many countries, the modern miniature horse
has evolved from a blend of several breeds and has been refined into the
beautiful, tiny animal we see today.
Miniature horses can be traced back to the beginning of the 1700’s.
Miniature horses used to pull coal carts in coal mines in the northern
Europe and England. Royalty was known to keep the smaller ones as pets.
They were brought to the U.S. in the 19th century to use in coal mine
Also called mini-horses, the miniature horse is not a pony because it does not possess pony-like
characteristics, but is more horse-like in its body proportions and character. Though most of the
bloodlines include selected Shetland breeding, miniature horses have the proportions, disposition,
and other characteristics that make them phenotypically “horses,” not ponies.
A good example of the modem miniature horse is the Falabella. The Falabella family of the Recreo
de Roca Ranch in Buenos Aires, Argentina, developed the Falablla in an attempt to create the
perfect equine specimen in miniature. They first crossed very small Shetland Ponies with small
Thoroughbreds, and then selectively inbred the smallest of the offspring. Many Falabellas are
beautiful examples of these tiny horses.
Along with Shetland pony, most of today's
lines have either Arabian or quarterhorse
types, although they probably all have some
Welsh pony in them.
The most popular minis in the show ring
today are those that resemble tiny
Arabian horses: fine-boned, delicate,
with large eyes and nostrils.
Understanding what went into their gene pooland how it was developed is important when breeding
today's mini horse. See Standards for breeding the best miniature horses.
Falabella Breeding Went into the Mini Horses Gene Pool
The Falabella breed was developed in Argentina and imported into California in 1962. Most of our
current stock of small horses in the U.S. have Falabella blood. Falabellas began in 1845, when
Irishman Patrick Newtall traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina where he discovered a herd of
unusually small horses grazing among the meadow lands. The Pampas Indians who had them were not
sure when they first saw them. The minis had lived among the Indians larger Croillo horses for
Newtall acquired many of the smallest horses and began a breeding program at his Argentian ranch.
His son-in-law, Juan Falabella, later joined him and improved the breeding program.
Juan added Shetland pony specimens (See Development of the Shetland Horse below), from
England and European Thoroughbred blood lines to the family breeding stock. Called Falabellas,
they now had the refinement and beauty we have come to love in today's miniature horse with
enough traits to set them apart from pure Shetlands.
At the turn of the century, through successive crossings Juan Falabella was able to develop a very
small, sturdy horse of good, refined conformation with heights under 33.5 inches.
A neighbor, John Aleno bought some of the mini horses and began importing them into the U.S.
The Regina Winery got 12 of these mini horses and displayed them in parades. This added to their
When Aleno died, a bank took over his mini horse herd as part of the estate. They were
subsequently sold to a Mr. Fuller who had 600 acres of land in Running Springs, California. Fuller
had the idea of turning his land into a recreation area, incorporating these tiny horses into the park.
Unfortunately, some barriers were encountered when permission was needed to build an access
road across government land. Their dream of having a recreational park was impossible, so the
Fullers sold their pure Falabella horse herd, which was dispersed across the U.S.
The Development of the Shetland Horse
Shetland horses were purposely being bred small in Europe from 1600 to 1800. European nobility
had their stable managers cross the smallest mini horses together and gave them as a gift to
Conversely, the largest horses were crossed with each other during the Crusades, when battle
needs called for animals that could haul armored men with heavy weapons. During the famines and
great wars in Europe, they almost disappeared and historians have suggested that they were eaten.
To make matters worse for the breed's future, with his large cavalry in mind King Henry VIII of
England ordered all stallions standing less than 14 hands high to be destroyed. Those that survived
were hidden by their caretakers.
Eventually the mini horse resurfaced in the company of gypsies and traveling circus people who
needed them for work. There were two different types: the refined type with slender long legs,
delicate heads, and long necks; and the smaller draft horse type that were stockier and broader
with shorter necks.
The stockier horse was preserved and used in coal mines in England. Later, they were imported
into West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio where their size and strength made them ideal for work in
mines with low ceilings. They continued to use them in the mines of the southern states up to the
It is believed that the Shetland is the product of nearly 400 years of purposely selecting the
smallest and strongest horse among already small breeds, such as the English and Dutch mine
horses. Although miniature horses today have little resemblance to a Shetland, they undeniably
have Shetland ancestry.
The Shetland horse is properly referred to as a miniature horse, and not a pony, because of their
proportions, character and size. And they are smaller than pony breeds.
What We Know Of Their Recorded History
In America, many early purchases and breeding records of Falabella and Sheltland horses were not
carefully documented and accurate accounts of pedigrees were not maintained by most breeders
until 1945. In Europe, the recorded history of these small horses goes back to the Renaissance.
They have even been found buried in tombs with the Egyptian Pharaohs.
French Empress Eugenie, Napolean's wife, enjoyed having her small carriage pulled by a mini horse.
Most Royal European palace children had a tiny horse to play with.
During the l700s in England, these small horses performed in traveling circuses. At Astley’s Circus,
a small horse about 3-feet tall became popular for its mind-reading tricks.
The first recorded mention of tiny horses being imported into the United States was in 1888,
when a single horse out of 140 Shetlands turned out to be the famous, 31-inch mini horse called
What We Know About The Shetland Horse in Scotland & The U.S.
The Shetland horse originated in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland. One of the most popular
small horse today, is the Shetland which resembles a draft horse. It had long been used for
working in mines and pulling carts. As more efficient methods were invented for doing this work,
their gentle disposition and small stature made them a favorite mount for children.
Its official size is less than 46 inches high, but some Shetlands are scarcely more than 24 inches.
The coat is long and shaggy, especially in winter and may be any color, although many have beautiful
dark and white patches.
Shetland horses were originally genetically bred and used in England for ploughing and carrying
peat. However, after England finally banned children from working in coal mines in 1847, thousands
of Shetlands were exported to mainland Britain to work as "pit ponies". They were ideally suited
to the work because of their great strength and small stature, which enabled them to pull coal
trucks through low tunnels.
This stockier type of horse was imported into the United States from England to be used in the
coal mines of Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. They were used in mining until 1950, because of
their strength and small size which enabled them to easily fit into the tunnels of the southern
In the early 1900s, Norman Fields of Bedford, Virginia had started buying pit ponies from Europe
for a coal mine in the Appalachian Mountains. Fields began to notice an occasional tiny horse among
his herd. He began weeding out the largest, which enabled him to develop a herd of very small
By 1964, he had 50 small horses in this herd of tiny Shetlands, but most of them never left the
forest near his Virgina home. He imported, bred, and raised them for 53 years. Some of these tiny
Shetlands began to drift into other herds influencing the gene pool.
There was not much public awareness of the true miniature horse during the years preceding 1960,
but a few dwarfs became known, such as 23-inch Tom Thumb and a 26-inch mare called Cactus, as
well as a few carnival freak-type small horses. It was after 1960 when the Falabella breed began
to excite children and their doting parents, that the rightful recognition of the beautiful mini
horse began to develop. Copyright 2013.
Baxter, K. Breeding Miniature Horses & Shetland Ponies. 2011.
Frankeny, R. L. Miniature Horses: A Veterinary Guide for Owners & Breeders. 2008.
Naviaux, B. Miniature Horses: Their Care, Breeding And Coat Colors. 1999.