I didn’t even believe in mini horses until Li’l Sebastian. I knew ponies were real; I’m not an idiot. But horses so tiny you could hold them in your arms? I thought I might have dreamed them.
Li’l Sebastian is a real live miniature horse who starred in not one but two episodes of the NBC comedy series Parks & Recreation. Everyone was woozily smitten. Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) pronounced him “the best thing to potentially ever happen to anyone, anywhere, in the history of the universe.“ At Li’l Sebastian’s funeral, Andy (Chris Pratt) crooned a mawkish tribute set to the tune of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” Even steely Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) shed a tear. Only Ben (Adam Scott) kept a cool head: “I just don’t know what the big deal is.”
Will people think I’m a monster if I say that mini horses weird me out a little? Maybe I just don’t know enough about them. Let’s learn together, shall we?
What counts as a mini horse?
According to the AMHA (American Miniature Horse Association) a mini horse’s height can’t exceed 34 inches. That’s littler than your average three year old kid. Unlike ponies, which are stockier and squatter than regular horses, mini horses are shrunken down, to-scale replicas of the standard sized breeds used to create them.
How do you make one?
By selectively breeding very small horses with other very small horses, and then taking their smallest offspring and breeding them with…each other.
What could possibly go wrong?
As we see in purebred dogs, a limited gene pool can give rise to mutations that impair health. In mini horses, dwarfism is one of the most prevalent. The mare who holds the Guinness World Record for shortest mini horse is the aptly named Thumbelina, who, at 17.5 inches tall, would come up about to my knee. Her deformities are pretty glaring: legs stubby like a corgi, head ginormous like a T. rex. (Cute, though.) Some argue that Thumbelina’s distorted proportions disqualify her as a genuine miniature horse, and the record actually belongs to Einstein, an itty bitty black and white stallion who could just about fit in a kitchen cabinet.
Where’d they come from?
They started off as cool novelty pets for rich people–think Justin Bieber’s (illegal) capuchin monkey or Mike Tyson’s (ill-advised) tigers. In the mid-1650’s King Louis XIV collected some miniature horses for his exotic zoo in the Palace of Versailles. As word got out about these chimerical creatures, other wealthy Europeans quickly saw the appeal of keeping miniature horses of their own.
What were they for?
While some mini horses lived in the lap of luxury, others toiled at hard labor. In 1838 twenty-six British children perished at the bottom of the coal mine where they worked. A subsequent investigation at the behest of Queen Victoria culminated in the Mines Act of 1842, which decreed that mines could no longer employ young children (though kids ten years old and up were still fair game.) But now who was going to haul out the mined coal through those low, cramped subterranean passages?
Eureka! Mini horses possessed just the strength, stature, and agreeable, industrious temperament to get the job done. This system worked so well that the U.S. started enlisting mini horses to lug coal out of its own mines. The practice continued well into the 20th century.
What about now?
These days mini horses generally are kept for more recreational uses, though some still have important jobs as service animals, most often as guides for blind people. What distinguishes service animals from therapy animals or emotional support animals is that they are trained to perform specific tasks to assist a disabled person. In 2011 the Department of Justice amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to include miniature horses in the definition, and public access rights, of service animals. Previously only dogs qualified. One advantage of guide horses over a guide dogs is their long lifespan, averaging 25-35 years. A blind person might require three different guide dogs in that amount of time.
When it comes to air travel, airlines have been getting pretty sick and tired of people trying to pass off their hedgehog, peacock, or ball python as an emotional support animal. However, they’re required–and quite happy–to welcome service horses aboard all flights.
Have you ever seen a miniature horse? Owned one? Wanted one? Been afraid of one? Used one as a service animal or known anyone who did?
DanDee Shots [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Infrogmation of New Orleans – Photo by Infrogmation (talk), CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10191889