Shetland ponies and miniature horses are the two smallest horse breeds in the world. They are both popular as pets or riding horses for small children and fun companion horses. A common mistake people make is not differentiating these small horses into different breeds. Luckily you have come to the right place as we will break down the main differences between the breeds in terms of appearance, personality and use.
The Shetland Pony is a small but stubborn horse breed that originates from the Shetland Islands, which are located in the Scottish archipelago northeast of the UK. How they originated is relatively unknown, but most likely they were a product of the Scandinavian ponies that were brought from Asia by the Keltic’s 200 years BC. These tiny horses were the only breed of horse that could survive the biting cold up in the north, and any larger horses would struggle with keeping their body temperature up with so little food at hand. Shetland ponies adapted well to the harsh climates and developed thicker coats, short legs, and sturdy bodies which were vital for withstanding the rough, cold weather. Nowadays, there are approximately 1500 small ponies that still roam freely in the Shetland Isles, which is quite a sight to see.
Shetland ponies are very intelligent and have therefore been used for many different jobs through the years. During the 1800s, these little horses were used in the coal mines due to the high demand for labor workers (after women and children were banned from the mines). The Shetland ponies were perfect for the job with their small height – making it possible for them to enter the mines as pit ponies pulling heavy mine carts. Nowadays, Shetland ponies are a popular riding and harness-driving horse found all over the globe. Shetland ponies are large enough for young children to ride and for adults to harness drive. They are also common companion animals that are also used in therapy as handicap horses. These ponies are usually referred to as the “pony that you never grow out”, and with good reason, because even if your own weight exceeds the riding range for this horse, you can still keep your best friend and practice your skills in liberty and trick training, or why not keep it as a pony for future generations? It is very important to always exercise a Shetland pony to keep it in good health, both mentally and physically, since it’s easy for these ponies to become bored and gain too much weight if you only keep them as pasture friends for another horse.
Features and Character
The small Shetland ponies are sturdy, durable, and hardworking ponies that love to work. It’s one of the bloodlines with the fewest health issues for small horse breeds, giving you a healthy and very smart pony with an easy-to-handle but somewhat headstrong temperament. They can be described as “a large horse in a small format” since they’re so useful for various genres with their full-sized horses temperament-wise.
There are two different variants of Shetland ponies: the mini, with a maximum height of 86 cm, and the normal, with a maximum height of 107 cm. What distinguishes a Shetland pony is their thick coating, compact bodies, and sturdy, strong legs. They are much like cold-bloods with muscular bodies and thick necks. Small heads, wide chests, and hefty, long manes and tails are all physical characteristics this pony has. The shorter legs they are equipped with are not very suitable for rugged terrain.
5 quick facts about Shetland ponies:
- Color – They come in every color and a variety of coat patterns (except leopard complex)
- Highest Population – As of 2024, the Netherlands is the country in the world with the most Shetland Ponies. However, a fun fact is that in terms of numbers, the Shetland pony is the most common pony breed in Sweden.
- Lifespan – Shetland Ponies usually live to about 20-25 years old, which is a little bit shorter than the average lifespan of regular horses with a lifespan of 30 years. They are considered fully grown at the age of 4.
- Strongest Horse – In relation to its size, the Shetland pony is one of the world’s strongest Equidae.
- Fastest Speed – The exact speed of a Shetland horse is difficult to estimate due to many factors such as age, terrain, training and health. With the right circumstances, these little ponies can run up to 20 miles per hour.
This miniature horse breed was created in the United States as a result of selective breeding. The goal of breeding this horse was to produce a breed that, both physically and mentally is as similar to a large horse as possible but in the smallest possible format. Therefore, they have leaner bodies with longer necks than the stereotypical pony appearance. Miniature horses have existed by our side for a long time and dates back to the 1500s, when royalty used them for exotic animal entertainment. However, it was not until the late 1800s that a solid breeding program took place in America, which created this specific breed. It started with two men named Moorman Field and Smith McCoy, who separately started to breed small horses with very noble features by seeking out the smallest Shetland ponies and crossing them with nobler elements such as Arabian horses and Appaloosas. The offspring turned out to be durable, wise, and very beautiful – the perfect companion horse, but on a much smaller scale than usual. The popularity of miniature horses continued to increase, and in 1978 the breed was officially approved, and a studbook was created with certain breed standards, known as the AMHA.
Mini Horses look like miniature versions of horses and act like them, but due to their small size and reduced physical strength, adults are not able to ride them. The average rule for how much a horse can carry is around 20% of their body weight, but when we apply that to miniature horses, they can only carry a rider and a saddle weighing between 25 and 70 pounds, depending on the size of the horse. This limits the riders to toddlers and small children, causing a problem when it comes to training an unbroken horse since children usually lack the experience. However, this does not limit the miniature horse’s usage, since they are excellent for many other genres. These horses are perfectly suited for all kinds of trick training, agility, companion horse, lunging, harness driving, and long reining. Every year, Miniature horse exhibitions and shows are held all over the world. It is a fun and intense period where you get the chance to show off what you have practiced, whether it is jumping or tricks. Here you can meet other people to share thoughts, ideas, and passion for this breed, leaving you with lots of new inspiration.
Features and character
This breed of pony is very fun, intelligent, easygoing, and fast-learning. There are two different categories of miniature horses: the A category, which is for those who are under 82cm, and the B category, which is for larger miniature horses with an average height ranging between 82 and 91 cm.
Miniature Horses are small and proportional, like a large horse in miniature format. The body is well-muscled, with small, straight legs that can be somewhat turned inward. They can have all different kinds of coat colors, and the features can also vary since miniature horses are not a firmly established breed, but all horses that meet the requirements can be registered. Some specimens look like fine thoroughbred horses, while others are a bit chubby and tougher. Most popular are the mini horses that have clear features of Arabian or English thoroughbreds.
5 quick facts about Miniature horses:
- Lifespan – They live longer, even longer than the regular horse, with a lifespan of 25-35 years. The oldest miniature horse was named Angel and aged 50 years old!
- No Dwarf gene – Miniature horses cannot be a product of dwarf genes passed on by horses. Sometimes dwarf horses are sold very expensively as “real miniature horses”, so beware when buying!
- Versatile use – With their fast learning and easy mindset, they are both popular therapy animals and circus animals.
- The world smallest horse – Thumbelina was the world’s smallest horse, born in 2001 in Missouri. She was a miniature horse with dwarf genes (therefore not considered a pure miniature horse) with a height of merely 43 cm.
- Health Issues – Its common for the breed to experience issues related to their back and joints because of their small legs not being suitable for supporting their large heads and body weight.