The beauty of smaller horses is that they are perfect for children or smaller, lighter new riders who feel they are not ready for a full-sized horse since those riders will have a shorter distance to fall if they are dismounted. They are often a transitional ride as the child or new rider grows accustomed to riding and taking control of their mount.
Horse sizes range from towering, 6-foot draft horses to miniature ponies that barely top 2 feet. The average height of a horse is 15.2 hands or around 5 feet. Any equine measuring more than 14.2 hands (57 inches) is classified as a horse, and anything less is classified as a pony or miniature horse. A cob measures at about 15 hands and often straddles the line between ponies and "horse" sized.
To measure a horse, first, make sure it's standing on level ground. Place your measuring tape at the base of a front hoof. Then, stretch the tape upward to the top of the withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades). The head isn't included in the measurement.
Smaller-stature horses stay smaller their whole lives and mature quicker than larger horses. The smaller breeds tend to be more stoic and intelligent than larger horses, which can also mean they're often more stubborn and independent-minded. Usually, the larger the breed, the more docile the mount.
Smaller horses and ponies are powerful. They can pull or carry heavy loads with more strength than a horse, relative to their size. They are often hardier than horses and can withstand greater ranges in temperature. Their coats tend to grow thicker in the winter and have thicker manes and tails; their hooves tend to be tougher. They are heavier boned and shorter-legged in proportion to their bodies compared to horses.
These 12 breeds are among the smallest horses and ponies in the world.
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The miniature horse is one of the smallest horse breeds. It has two height divisions. The tallest is no more than 9.5 hands (38 inches). Miniature horses are often too small for riding. But they can pull carts, compete in obstacle courses and jumping, and serve as therapy animals.
Height: Typically under 8.5 hands (34 inches) to 9.5 hands (38 inches)
Weight: 150 to 350 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Small, muscular build; proportions similar to larger horses
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The Falabella is a miniature horse from Argentina. Its ancestral stock includes Andalusian and Iberian bloodlines. The horse is named for the Falabella family, who selectively bred small horses to create a consistently miniature version. Falabellas are used as guide animals due to their manageable size and trainable nature.
Height: 6.25 hands (25 inches) to 8.5 hands (34 inches)
Weight: 40 to 100 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Smooth coat; slender, compact structure; large head
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Don't let their small size fool you. Shetlands are strong, intelligent, and spunky horses. But they are also gentle and often excellent with children. Hailing from Scotland's Shetland Islands, these horses were used for agricultural work and hauling coal in mines. Their thick coats help them to withstand frigid winters.
Height: 7 hands (28 inches) to 11.5 hands (46 inches)
Weight: 400 to 450 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Compact body; broad head; short legs; lush mane and tail
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The Noma is the smallest native horse breed of Japan. These horses were developed during the 17th century primarily to serve as pack animals on steep terrain and remote islands. Today, they are a critically endangered horse breed but still a highly visited attraction in Japanese zoos and on farms.
Height: 10.75 hands (43 inches) to 13.75 hands (55 inches)
Weight: 450 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Cylindrical body; oblique buttocks; thin legs; durable hoovesContinue to 5 of 12 below.
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The Yonaguni is another critically endangered Japanese small horse breed. It hails from Okinawa's Yonaguni Island. The breed was initially used for farm work and transportation. Today, it is often used for instructional purposes in local schools and for recreational riding. As of 2019, there were around 100 Yonaguni left.
Height: 11.5 hands (46 inches) to 11.75 hands (47 inches)
Weight: 460 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Large head; short neck; long, sloping back
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The strong, compact Icelandic horse is about 3 inches shorter than a typical horse. The Icelandic is larger than the ponies, but their legs are shorter. These horses are widely used for sheepherding to control or manage animal flocks. They are resistant to harsh conditions. This gaited horse breed has a "tolt" stepping movement that describes the horse's single-footed pace. Its gait is comfortable for the rider, and it can carry a person briskly over rough terrain.
Height: 13 to 14 hands (52 and 56 inches)
Weight: 730 and 840 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Broad at the withers, with a deep chest, and stout, muscular legs
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It is believed that Guoxia horses date back to China 2000 years ago. Guoxia originated in Debao, Jinxi, and Tianyang district of China. The horse is only 40 inches in height. Guoxia is a good option for children. People commonly used the ponies for carrying fruit baskets in orchards, which reflects their name meaning "under fruit tree horse.” For centuries, the breed was forgotten and considered extinct. However, in 1981, a herd of thousand Guoxia ponies was found in its native range, and a breed association was formed. Although still a rare breed today, their numbers have stabilized.
Height: 10 hands (40 inches)
Physical Characteristics: Small head, short neck, small ears, and straight back; coloration is usually roan, bay, or gray in color
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The fjord horse is one of the smaller horse breeds of the world. It originates from Norway. The average height of fjord is 54 inches, about 6 inches shorter than a typical horse. This breed is used in the mountains and agricultural fields. It commonly pulls tourist coaches. They are gentle and easy to ride and can be ridden by adults.
Height: 13.1 to 14.3 hands (53 to 59 inches)
Weight: 880 to 1,100 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Strong, arched neck, sturdy legs, with a compact, muscular body; its head is medium-sized and well defined with a broad, flat forehead and a straight or slightly dished face, with small ears and large eyesContinue to 9 of 12 below.
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Class B Kentucky mountain horse is 11 inches shorter than a typical horse. It is a smaller-sized Kentucky mountain saddle horse. Its average height is 49 inches. The horse is popular with beginners, young riders, and bigger kids. The horse is gentle, intelligent, calm, and quiet. It is also known for its smooth, ambling gait. Kentucky mountain specimens that stand taller than 14.2 hands are "class A" horses.
Height: 11 to 14.1 hands (44 to 57 inches)
Weight: 950 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Well-muscled, compact build with a flat facial profile, a mid-length, well-arched neck, a deep chest, and well-sloped shoulders
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The Haflinger horse originated in the Haflige province of Austria. The horse is about 3 inches shorter than the typical horse; its average height is about 56 inches. The horse is intelligent, strong, compact, and beautiful. The Haflinger horse is an excellent family horse, able to carry children and adults. Haflingers are known for their wonderful personality and temperament. They often perform in dressage and jumping competitions and Western horse shows.
Height: 13.2 to 15 hands
Weight: 800 to 1,300 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Short, stocky build with strong hooves and legs; light gold to a darker chestnut or liver chestnut coloration usually with white points on the legs
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Pony of the Americas
The pony of the Americas is a breed that derived from a cross with an Arabian, Appaloosa, and Shetland ponies in Iowa in the 1050s. It is a versatile and beautiful spotted pony. They were bred for Western riding and are used for English and endurance riding. Their most important characteristic is its Appaloosa markings along with height requirements up to about 13 hands. Other physical qualities include having a quarter horse body and an Arabian-style dishy face.
Height: 11 to 13 hands (44 to 52 inches)
Weight: 770 to 880 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Slightly dished face, a broad chest, and a solid body; Appaloosa color patterning
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American Quarter Pony
A good transition from a pony to a first small horse for young riders as they grow is an American quarter pony. It has a body and build similar to an American quarter horse but is a separate breed. The breed was developed by mixing small quarter horses, paint horses, Appaloosas, and ponies of the Americas. They stand up to 14 hands tall and are good all-around ponies. They are small and quiet enough for younger riders and beginners but not too small that they can’t be ridden by adults. These intelligent ponies are highly trainable, making them also suitable for experienced riders.
Height: 13 to 14 hands
Weight: 800 to 1100 pounds
Physical Characteristics: Short, broad head with small ears and wide-set eyes, set on a slightly arched neck; shoulders are sloping, the withers sharp, the chest is broad and deep; the back is short and the hindquarters are broad and deep
Breeds to Avoid
If you are an adult and plan to ride these smaller horses, there are two breeds to cross out entirely: miniature horses and Falabellas. Only small children–no heavier than 50 pounds—should ever ride these tiny horses. The rule of thumb is a pony can carry a person (including tack) that is 20% of their weight. Since Falabellas are the smallest horses—some only weighing about 40 pounds—those ponies should never be ridden for fear of hurting the pony's back. Children can also ride Shetland ponies, Noma, and Yonaguni breeds, but only if the horse is on the heavier side and in good physical condition. If you are a heavier person, upwards of 170 pounds, make sure the pony or small horse is at least 950 to 1000 pounds; it should be able to carry your weight safely.