Fears are growing that the theft of a performing pony promoted as the world’s smallest horse may be part of an equine kidnapping plot.
Star performer Charlie stands just 63cm (2 foot) tall.
His owner, Bartolo Messina, has voiced his fears in Italy that a ransom may ultimately be demanded for the return of the pint-sized performer.
Charlie disappeared from his enclosure at the 47th annual National Horse Fair in Città di Castello, in the country’s Umbria region.
The thieves are believed to have cut a hole in the wire fence around Charlie’s enclosure on Thursday night, carrying the pony off through a field of tobacco plants.
The president of the national horse show, Angelo Capecci, told a local newspaper, the Corriere Dell’Umbria: “We have been victims of a serious criminal act that offends and humiliates the equine world.
“The security measures that for years have ensured the safety of the participants and that have always prevented the occurrence of similar incidents, were apparently undermined by a shameful act that does not reflect the horse world and its values.
“We sympathise with Bartolo Messina, a great equestrian artist who loves and lives by his horses, and had trained the victim of this sad episode with extraordinary kindness and ability.”
Media have reported police suspicions that Charlie was taken by Italian criminals.
A car seen speeding from the location where Charlie was housed may have been involved.
A police spokesperson said: “Investigations are continuing. We are not excluding any possibilities, including that the perpetrators are part of a criminal organisation.”
While Charlie is undoubtedly one of the world’s smallest horses, the Guinness World Records lists the smallest living horse as Thumbelina, a miniature mare in the United States who stands 17.5 inches tall.