True Equestrian: Is it a Mini, a Pony, or a Baby?

Photo by Lauren Mueller – Cash, left, and Cam, right, are Quarter Horse foals at the Fresno State Quarter Horse Unit. They are colts — baby boys.

Ace, front, and Candy, back, are both Miniature Horses
Photo by Lauren Mueller – Ace, front, and Candy, back, are both Miniature Horses

By Lauren Mueller

Turn off Highway 180 onto Piedra Road and drive a short distance. You’ll pass open fields filled with Thoroughbreds, a racetrack and one field occupied by half-sized equines having far too much fun.

In the spring, driving past those same fields will show another group of half-sized horses – these wobbly on their feet with fluffy tails and the kind of exuberance that comes with new life and a bright future. Some of these Thoroughbred babies will grow up to be the next California Chromes and Beholders of the racing world. Some will never make it to the track.

This particular group of half-pints won’t stay small, though. They’ll all grow to be tall, powerfully-built and fast. They are babies, and their small, fuzzy stage will only last a year at most.

Baby horses are called foals. A male is a colt and a female is a filly. The terms don’t apply to any one specific type of horse. A foal is any baby horse of any breed.

It’s not uncommon for foals to be called “ponies” in passing. They are, after all, small and fluffy like ponies are. But a Pony is actually a classification of horse, and there are many different breeds of Pony.

For reference, the Shetland Pony is likely the most common Pony breed in America. According to the American Shetland Pony Club (ASPC), the breed dates back to the 1800s, when these ponies were first imported to the United States from the Shetland Isles. The Shetland Pony that is most common today is the result of 120 years of selective breeding and cultivation.

Today’s Classic Shetland Ponies can be shorter than 38 inches at the shoulder, but do not exceed 46 inches at the shoulder. They are known for having well-made bodies, refined ears, head and throat latch area, and outstanding toplines. According to the ASPC they have “short, sharp, erect ears, prominent eyes and a refined jaw” and can be any color except appaloosa. Shetlands have an “innate driving ability” and they are popular first ponies for children, as well as willing beginning driving ponies for adults.

As far as personality, the ASPC says the Shetland “is often docile with a pleasing personality” (though my first pony was a Shetland and she was the opposite of this description). They are termed a versatile breed, filling every role from children’s first pony to competitive team driving hitches. They are also used in therapy programs.

Most other Pony breeds fall within the description given for the Shetland. So that raises the question, then, about Miniature Horses. Because what, really, is the difference?

Mainly, the difference is size. While Ponies can be shorter than 38 inches at the shoulder, Miniature Horses, or simply “Minis,” rarely exceed that height. They are also built smaller, with more compact frames and features that more closely resemble what you would expect if you put a full-sized horse through the dryer.

The American Miniature Horse Registry (AMHR) is one of two Miniature Horse Registries in America, the other being the American Miniature Horse Association (AMHA). The AMHR was founded under the ASPC, and it a good place to go to compare the two breeds.

Miniature Horses were developed during the 20th century and by the mid 1950s, many Pony farms were breeding the smaller horses for fun. The ASPC created the AMHR in the 1970s in response to the growing popularity of the Miniature Horse.

Miniature Horses are more proportionate than Ponies, and are known for their dispositions and confirmation. They are extremely versatile, require less space than other equine counterparts, and can do just about anything a full-sized horse can do.

According to AMHR, Miniature Horses “have become increasingly popular with both children and adults. These versatile little horses can do just about anything a full-sized horse can do – making them small in size but big in versatility, personality, beauty, strength, and fun! … Their roles vary from backyard pet and fun parade entries to gorgeous show horses and therapy horses for persons with special needs or companions to the elderly.”

Miniature Horses also vary in color in comparison to Shetlands, as any color you can imagine is acceptable to the breed. Their size is also measured differently. They are measured from the last hair of their mane to the ground as opposed to Ponies and horses that are measured at the withers. There are also two height divisions for Miniature Horses. Division “A” hosts Miniature Horses that are shorter than 34 inches, while Division “B” has those that are 34 to 38 inches tall.

But how can you tell them apart at a glance? Well, the truth is, you can’t. Unless the Miniature Horse is really little, like the Falabella breed that is known for sometimes being only 12 inches tall, Ponies and Minis look an awful lot like each other. So when in doubt, ask!

Most people who own Miniature Horses are all too excited to tell you about this unique and semi-new breed. And those with Ponies will tell you all about their breed. In fact, anyone with a horse will probably be thrilled that you asked about their equine companion, and won’t be offended at all if you ask what kind, what gender, or how old their partner is.

Just don’t forget: babies aren’t Ponies! They’re foals, and they won’t stay that small for long. So take a snapshot of the gangly thing with a fluffy tail and no mane, because the next time you see it, it probably won’t be that cute.

Happy Trails!