Small horses are most often the product of environment, where the harsh climatic conditions combined with the low availability of feed contributes to their small stature. However, with a knowledge of genetics, it is also possible to breed specifically for size – either miniatures or, equally, very large horses. At various periods in equine history miniature horses have been bred as pets and for curiosity value.

Today, the Falabella is the best-known miniature. It is always claimed to be a miniature “horse”, on account of its proportions and character, and not a pony. Miniatures outside the Falabella breed are now bred increasingly, particularly in the US.

The Falabella evolved from a selective breeding policy perfected by the Falabella family at their Recreo de Roca Ranch, outside Buenos Aires, Argentina. To obtain these dwarf horses they crossed the smallest Shetlands available with a very small Thoroughbred stallion. They then subsequently down-bred by mating the smallest animals with each other and fixing the dwarf character by intensive in-breeding.

One of the smallest “miniatures” ever bred was a mare called Sugar Dumpling who belonged to Smith McCoy of Roderfield, West Virginia, USA. The horse was only 51 cm (20 in) high, and weighed just 13.5 kg (30 lb). The aim of breeders is to produce a near-perfect equine specimen in miniature, but the practice of in-breeding to reduce size often results in a lack of conformational vigor.

The best Falabella and miniature horse stock often retain the better points of the Shetland, but otherwise many of these equine dwarfs are disproportionate, with large, heavy heads, weak quarters, and sometimes misshapen lower limbs. However, they are said to be good-tempered and friendly when kept as pets. Coat patterns vary but attractively spotted animals are not unusual. The preferred height of the Falabella is about 76 cm (30 in) at the withers.

The US has a substantial pony population as a result of imports of some established European breeds, in particular the Mount and Moorland ponies native to the UK.
Apart from these breeds there are, or were, no ponies of a comparable standard that might be true native to the country. American breeders however, have a genius for adaptation an a strong entrepreneurial instinct, so within about 50 years of the first importation
of 75 Shetland ponies, two different Shetland-based breeds emerged: the Pony of the Americas and the numerous and very popular American Shetland.

The original Shetland, for all its small size and relatively restricted use, has been successfully exported worldwide for over 100 years. Indeed, today there are probably more Shetlands in the Netherlands than in the UK. It is the most popular pony in the US, where there are over 50,000 of them. The first 75 Shetlands were imported in 1885 by a man called Eli Elliot, and an American Shetland Pony Club was formed three years later. Thereafter, the movement towards an improved pony gathered momentum. Today, the modern American Shetland bears little resemblance to the original, tough, island pony that can thrive in severe weather conditions on minimal subsistence.

The “new breed” is essentially a smart harness pony, and was created by selecting the finer types of Island Shetland and then crossing them with Hackney Ponies. Outcrosses were then made to Arabs and small Thoroughbreds to produce what is a relatively distinctive type, with an eastern overtone to a predominantly Hackney outline. It also has the pronounced Hackney character and brilliant, high-stepping action. The thick, woolly coat of the Shetland has gone, although the mane and tail retain some of its luxuriance. The limbs are longer and finer, and the height limit is 1.17 m (11.2 hh), a hand higher than the average for the original Shetland Island Pony.

It is claimed that the pony still has much of the traditional hardiness and robust condition. This is perhaps questionable, but there is no doubt about the pony’s versatility. It is shown in harness classes to four-wheeled buggies, and is expected to move as well as a Hackney Pony; it competes drawing two-wheeled vehicles in Roadster classes (the equivalent of the British driving classes), in which a different set of criteria apply; and it races in lightweight harness sulkies.

It is also expected to go well under saddle in either western or English tack. The “hunter” type competes over a small jumping course, while others, with weighted shoes, long toes, and set-up tails, are show-ring ponies. Prices for top-class ponies are very high by British Shetland standards. Thirty years ago, when demand reached a peak, five- and six-figure sums were being paid for breeding stock and stallion syndication.