patient with Thumbelina Patient Angela Evans pets Thumbelina during the tiny horse's visit to UC Davis Children's Hospital.

Every child loves a cuddly soft stuffed animal to hug, especially when they are ill. However, to have a toy-sized animal seemingly come alive before young eyes goes well beyond the usual comforting presence. It is something almost magical.

That's certainly the feeling pediatric patients of the UC Davis Children's Hospital expressed when they received a visit from the world's smallest horse. The pint-sized equine known as Thumbelina recently stopped by the children's playroom to visit and greet delighted boys and girls.

Thumbelina is a dwarf miniature horse that was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest horse in the world in 2006. The chestnut mare stands about 17 inches tall and weighs 57 pounds. By comparison, standard miniature horses usually measure about twice that size.

Parents and Children's Hospital staff marveled at the youngsters' delighted reactions to the horse.

"The kids loved the horse and couldn't take their eyes off it," said Angie Marin, nurse manager for the pediatric unit. "It might have reminded them of those fantasy movies where a little stuffed animal or toy comes to life and brings all sorts of fun and adventure."

young patient with Thumbelina Thumbelina greets and nuzzles a young patient.

The horse apparently has been having a similar effect on kids throughout the country. Last year, Thumbelina and its owner were invited into more than 180 hospitals, schools and shelters, where it prompted amazement and smiles among more than 20,000 children. The horse's owner said Thumbelina has a very quiet demeanor, which is perfect for letting children pet it.

Thumbelina was born seven years ago on a farm in Missouri. Her parents are standard miniature horses. She weighed 8 ½ pounds and was 10 inches tall at birth, which contrasts with standard miniatures who weigh approximately 20 to 25 pounds when born and range from 16 to 20 inches in height. It's no wonder that her diet only consists of one cup of grain, twice a day, and a few handfuls of hay.

While Thumbelina is perfectly healthy, like many of the children she visits, there have been some physical challenges for her over the years. Today, she wears a leg brace during public appearances. It's the type of thing that clearly adds to her appeal for the kids. Not only is this a little cuddly toy horse, it's a demonstration of living with and overcoming physical problems, too.

Of course, Thumbelina's mission is not just one of entertainment. She clearly brings much-needed love, joy and strength to every new hospital friend