My little pony - small, perfectly formed and thoroughbred

They look like horses, smell and behave like the real thing and are increasingly popular. But they're less than three feet high. Chris Mowbray enters the Lilliputian world of miniature horses at a diminutive stud farm.

At the sunset of their careers, old equestrians do not die or even fade away - they just downsize. Riders who once fearlessly urged their horses to jump over six-foot-high fences are increasingly setting their sights on something rather smaller when their days in the saddle are over.

Which helps to explain why the world of miniature horses, in which fully- grown equines as small as labradors can change hands for mammoth prices, is booming. Once a horse lover, it seems, always a horse lover, and difficulties such as age, infirmity and even severe physical handicap need not prevent you from keeping a thoroughbred when you are no longer capable of handling the full-scale thing.

For miniature horses are seriously small. Standing no more than the permitted maximum of 34 inches at the shoulder, they can be kept in an ordinary back garden, provided the owners really know what they are doing and feed and exercise them properly.

"This is what makes them so popular with former riders who are no longer capable of riding but who still want to own a horse," says Tikki Adorian, the chair of the British Miniature Horse Society.

"We also find that they are becoming popular with couples whose adult children used to ride as youngsters. They have never ridden themselves, but they miss having a horse about the place and keep a miniature instead as a pet. Miniatures feel, smell and behave like real horses because that is exactly what they are and they have to be treated as such."

The history of miniature horses is shrouded in mystery and a paucity of documentation, but it is certain that they are directly descended from a tiny creature which roamed the earth 60 million years ago. In Britain their survival has, however, been at some risk on a number of occasions. Henry VIII, in particular, ordered that all mature horses under a certain height should be slaughtered and buried. He was apparently anxious to breed a new race of super-equine for battle which would leave the enemy as also-rans.

Fortunately, his rustic subjects chose to ignore him and continued using them for racing, hauling in fuel from the peat moors and pulling coal out of the earliest mines. Later monarchs recognised their charm and it became the fashionable thing at Court to be seen trotting out with a miniature.

Celebrities have been keeping them ever since. Current owners include the actor Patrick Mower, the designer Paolo Gucci, and a number of Eastern royal families. A full list of such luminaries is impossible to come by because, to safeguard their privacy, many buy their miniatures through an agent and are never registered as the owners.

Yet while the trade in miniatures is a multi-million-dollar industry in America, the creatures are generally far from expensive in Britain. Although a top thoroughbred can fetch pounds 12,500, the average price is only pounds l,300 for fillies and pounds 650 for colts. A poor but healthy specimen can cost as little as pounds 50.

"Someone who is knowledgeable can keep them on a back-garden lawn which is the same as a field is to a full-size horse," adds Mrs. Adorian.

"The problem is, however, that even the smallest horse can churn up the ground with its hooves in wet weather. There are other difficulties as well. Some garden plants can be poisonous to them, neighbours might object and, depending on where you live, you might be contravening council by- laws by keeping them too close to a house."

Mrs Adorian has encountered every snag involved in keeping miniatures since falling in love with them while learning to ride on one 52 years ago at the age of three. She started breeding them when only 19 and now has 300 on her 200-acre stud farm in West Sussex - nearly a quarter of the entire register of the British Society. The number of unregistered horses is unknown and the Society would like to trace them in the hope of finding stock which will improve the national pedigree.

Her string includes what is registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest horse in the world, five-year-old Toy Horse Countess Natushka (Tushie for short) who stands at just 27 inches. Tushie's title is about to be taken from her by an American usurper called Hope.

Mrs Adorian was heavily involved with the International Miniature Horse Society until five years ago when she fell out violently with members who, she claims, were trying to pass off British-bred horses as American. Believing that the British breeding herd was in danger of losing its identity, she founded the British Society to preserve and improve the blood lines. The Society is now developing competitions - including showjumping classes in which the owner has to run alongside the animal and jump the same fences.

"If you are hooked on miniatures, you are really hooked and I know of marriages which have ended because of them. One partner becomes so addicted to them and devotes so much time to them, that the other partner feels left out and becomes jealous.

"People seeing them for the first time are usually stopped in their tracks. They are just the most amazing creatures."

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