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Animals

Pumuckel The 20-Inch Pony Has Other Mini-Horses Quaking In Their Hooves

A lady lifts a comically small Shetland pony out of a van in Germany.
Carola Weidemann lifts small Shetland pony Pumuckel out of her van.
Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a well-worn bit about what the ideal male body is and what peak performance looks like. These words are often used in jest, accompanying a photo of a body that is rather silly or a body that is less flesh than artfully browned bread. But sometimes a body comes along that proves the axiom true, an earthly form seems destined for greatness, the kind of body that charts a course for a life.

Pumuckel, a Shetland pony who stands about 20 inches tall at the withers, is a miniature horse of humble origins. When Carola Weidemann purchased Pumuckel for her farm in Breckerfeld, Germany, she assumed Pumuckel would grow to be as tall as any other mini Shetland pony (about 31 inches tall). But Pumuckel had other plans. Pumuckel’s body heeded the call of a higher force and resisted the common, lazy urge to get big. Instead, Pumuckel stayed small.

Some consider this an unorthodox strategy for greatness. Wouldn’t it be more impressive to be the tallest miniature horse in the world, defying assumptions of what horses of your kind can achieve? A large horse the size of a small horse? No. This is only impressive if you buy in to the dominating societal view that taller is better, bolder, sexier. But size has no moral dimension.

Three small ponies of increasing size stand in a nursing home in Germany. The smallest, a miniature shetland pony, is Pumuckel.Credit: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images
Pumuckel and his buddies about to make everyone’s day at a nursing home.

Pumuckel’s lack of height offers enormous advantages to his lackadaisical and deeply compassionate life as a therapy horse. His small size means he can eat breakfast in the kitchen—guaranteeing him nutrients and comfort—and ride to the nursing home he visits in the passenger seat of Weidemann’s van. Would a full-size horse be able to claim shotgun infinity? No! Only Pumuckel.

Pumuckel will need to lean on every creature comfort he can get to stay small in the coming year. This puny pony is the number one seed to sweep the Guinness World Record for smallest horse. This year, however, Reuters reported that Pumuckel was barred from competing. The world’s smallest horse must be at least 4 years old, in Guinness’s book, disqualifying too-sprightly 3-year-old Pumuckel. For now, the reigning record-holder is Bombel, a mini Appaloosa horse who, with withers 22 inches tall, is shorter than a greyhound. What will the next year look like for Bombel? The champion may be a lame duck, but perhaps he anticipates the lightness he will feel if and when the crown is duly passed along to Pumuckel.

Of course, all of the most miniature miniature horses stand in the tiny shadow of Thumbelina, who stood just 17-and-a-half inches at her withers. When Thumbelina first tumbled out of her mother, a mini mare named Rosie, everyone thought she was dead. She was too small, her feet were tucked up, and the birth was difficult. But then someone gave Thumbelina mouth-to-mouth, and from that sloppy kiss of life the unlikely foal grew up to be a Guinness world-record holder who could comfortably sit in your lap. Thumbelina remains the smallest horse in all recorded history, a crown she’s held even after her death in 2018. Thumbelina, the tiniest to ever do it.

But let there be no misunderstanding—Thumbelina’s superlative does not overshadow the promise of Pumuckel. Pelé’s legendary prowess over the game of soccer does not mean our eyes are not fixed on the galacticos who are alive and kicking, literally. Pumuckel is the first diminutive pony I have encountered since learning there was a Guinness record for smallest pony, and therefore he is the most famous miniature pony in my world.

A very tiny miniature Shetland pony named Pumuckel stands in his tiny pen alongside two regular-sized cats which show how tiny he is.Credit: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images
Pumuckel in his Pumuckel-sized enclosure.

Casual observers may see Pumuckel as a bastion of cuteness or the pinnacle of domestication—the proof that for every animal that exists, we could make a cuter, smaller, less useful version. But people did not breed miniature horses like Pumuckel for their otherworldly good looks. People bred Pumuckels to labor underground in coal mines, according to Horse Illustrated: “The magazine for people who are passionate about horses.” Miniature horses were strong enough to pull heavy carts of coal but small enough to maneuver in the cramped conditions of a mine. According to this Mental Floss story, when technology rendered pit ponies elite, some retired ponies were so stressed living above ground that they didn’t know how to graze on grass!!! But amid all this equine injustice, Pumuckel’s precious size probably would have rendered him ineffective as a pit pony, Too small to lug a coal cart, I like to think Pumuckel would have campaigned for the rights of his fellow miniatures above ground. Thus Pumuckel is the ideal size for any century.

With Pumuckel’s fourth birthday still on the horizon, nothing is set in stone. Weidemann has told Reuters that the itty-bitty pony has stopped growing, and he still has two inches on Bombel. But wilder things have happened. No one can control the whims of a pony who has never known anything but sitting shotgun. Life, and stature, can be fleeting. Every champion has their time in the sun. If the stars remain aligned, Pumuckel will soon have his turn. Make no mistake: Pumuckel is a horse to watch.