Meet Thumbelina, the world's smallest horse

Kids love to pet and play with a real horse that's less than 18 inches tall.

Have you ever ridden a horse or pony? Then you'd say that these animals are bigger than you, right? Not this time: You haven't met Thumbelina, who is the world's smallest horse, according to "Guinness World Records." She stands just 17-1/2 inches small – less than the length of many newborn babies!

So just how did such a tiny horse come to be? Well, Thumbelina is a miniature horse, a special breed that is a bit less than three feet (36 inches) tall just above the shoulders. But when Thumbelina was born on May 1, 2001 – surprise! – she was also a dwarf, which meant that even when she grew up, she would be extra teeny.

As an adult horse, she weighs only 58 pounds. She might be heavier than you can lift on your own, but in the world of horses, she's a real lightweight. Most miniature horses (also called "minis") can weigh between 175 and 225 pounds. And regular-size horses may weigh 1,000 pounds or more!

Thumbelina is owned by the Goesslings, a family who breeds mini horses on their farm in Ladue, Mo. Paul, Kay, and their grown-up son, Michael, never expected to breed a mini quite as small as Thumbelina.

But when the itty-bitty foal arrived, it was love at first sight. Michael Goessling marvels at Thumbelina's extremely soft, short brown coat and impossibly tiny legs. (Her legs are so short, in fact, that to keep Thumbelina from escaping, an additional wire had to be installed below the bottom rung of the fence that keeps the rest of the minis safely in their meadow.)

The Goesslings had no trouble deciding what to call their diminutive new arrival. "Thumbelina" is also the name of a beautiful but thumb-size girl who sprang from an enchanted flower in a 19th-century fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

The story of Thumbelina the girl has captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of children. Maybe you've even heard the tale. Today, though, kids don't have to imagine. They can reach out and touch the real-life Thumbelina – who just happens to be a horse, of course. And reach out, they have.

Thumbelina is almost constantly surrounded by kids who are her own size because she has a special ability to connect with and inspire them. Thousands of children have seen, petted, and marveled at her. She even has a website and fan clubs around the world in places such as the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East and Hong Kong in Asia.

Thumbelina, however, is not fazed by the near-constant attention she receives. And she doesn't always return the intense interest she inspires. She is content to have her coat petted by just about everyone, but she usually wanders close only to certain people.

"She can always pick out which kids are hurting, whether it's emotionally or physically," Mr. Goessling says.

He recalls a moment between Thum­belina and a 2-year-old girl in a wheelchair who visited the Missouri farm with her adoptive parents. "She'd wheel herself around ... and talk in her little squeaky voice. Thumbelina never left her side. That interaction was so amazing."

The little girl returned to the barn several times, watching Thumbelina relax in her "dogloo" (a doghouse in the shape of an igloo), instead of the typical stable stall. The girl has also watched Thumbelina play with the farm's spaniel dogs, which the horse sometimes prefers for company over other horses. The little girl even wrote a song about Thumbelina, which she sings with her mother before she goes to sleep at night.

No local children have visited Thumbelina since she started on a cross-country tour, though. Since May, she's traveled to 38 states and Washington, D.C., in the Thumby-mobile – a 30-foot RV converted into a makeshift horse pen, complete with food, water, and toys.

The goal of the Thumbelina Children's tour is to raise $1 million by the time the trip wraps up in November. All the money will go toward children's causes.

"We never want to make a penny off her. It's all about the kids," Mr. Goessling says. "She's the perfect storm of a child advocate. The world just seems to gravitate towards her."

Thumbelina is enjoying a few days of rest now at the Goesslings mini-horse farm. But soon, she'll go to the Southeast on the last leg of the tour.

One highlight of the trip so far, Mr. Goessling says, was when Thumbelina was invited onto the field of the Chicago White Sox baseball team, and the entire stadium applauded. She also made an appearance at a famous horse race called the Kentucky Derby, and she celebrated her birthday at a party given by the Kentucky Derby Museum.

But she didn't celebrate just her own birthday during the tour. In addition to public events that were open to everyone, Thumbelina has also attended several private functions, including the birthday parties of a few regular folks like you! And on Oct. 27, she'll go to a special neighborhood Halloween party in St. Louis.

Can you imagine what it would be like to have Thumbelina at your next party? Would she be your honored guest? If so, you're not alone. Mr. Goessling says that kids don't treat her like an animal, but like a person – a friend. He adds, "They say to her, 'What do you like to do? Do you want to come over to my house for a sleepover?' "

If you had the opportunity to meet Thumbelina, what would you say?

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