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Trail Notes: What’s The Deal With Miniature Horses?



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I mean, they’re cute and everything, but you can’t ride them, so what’s the point? That was my opinion of miniature horses, more commonly known as minis. They are truly miniature: Their height at the shoulder is never more than 38 inches. That’s about the height of your kitchen counter and only a little taller than a Great Dane. Many are even smaller than that and can weigh as little as 150 pounds (an average sized horse is about 1,000 pounds).

As with most domestic animals, humans use selective breeding to produce desired traits. In this case, horses were bred to produce smaller and smaller offspring over several hundred years. Some were bred from Shetland ponies and retain pony-like characteristics, but others are the product of breeding small horses and look very much like small Arabians or thoroughbreds. The Falabella is a gorgeous Argentinian miniature horse that resembles the Spanish Andalusian from which it is descended. Miniature horses were pets of nobility in the eighteenth century, but more commonly were used to work in coal mines, pulling heavy carts in the small tunnels of Ireland, England, and continental Europe. By 1913, there were 70,000 “pit ponies” underground in Britain. Minis were brought over to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century to labor in coal mines here. When the ponies were replaced with machinery, they became popular as pets and today they are loved for their versatility and just darn cuteness.

Even though they cannot be ridden, minis are extremely versatile. I came to know minis as companion animals to full size horses. Horses are happiest as part of a herd, so the smart backyard horse owner knows that if they don’t have room for another horse, a companion animal such as a goat, donkey, or mini will keep their horse calmer and more content. You can maintain two or three minis on the same acreage that would be needed for a full-size horse. They eat less but do need regular vet care and you don’t get a discount for size!

There are shows all over the country for minis where they are shown in halter, confirmation classes, and in performance. Minis can do so much — in-hand trail obstacles, jumping (the handler runs alongside), hunter, showmanship, and liberty! But the real fun for many is teaching their mini to pull carriages, either singly or in matched teams. Imagine an obstacle driving class where a handler is guiding a team of minis around and through obstacles at a high rate of speed! It’s amazing.

Newtown resident Linda Petersen owns a small herd of miniature horses that provide endless delight, galloping around her property on a moment’s notice. Linda got the mini bug about 13 years ago, and bought Dually, a brown and white paint. She compares mini ownership to the addictiveness of potato chips and now has four, plus a Shetland pony. She has trained them in carriage driving and has competed at the national level. Linda loves them not just because they are so adorable; she says they have very inquisitive personalities, bond readily with humans, load easily, don’t need shoes, and recover more quickly from strenuous exercise. Linda told me that it is truly a great partnership to have with an animal.

Minis can also be excellent therapy and companion animals. Because of their small size, they can be brought inside nursing homes and hospitals. Children immediately are attracted to them because of their approachable size. Some minis are very intelligent and can actually be taught to be guide horses for the blind. The advantage over a dog is their lifespan of 25 to 35 years.

Unfortunately, their cuteness can be their downfall. Many folks who have never owned a horse will purchase a mini with no idea about care or training. They are not dogs and cannot be treated as such. You can’t love the bad behavior out of them. A mini needs consistent firm training to respect humans and understand what a lead rope is. A miniature horse with no training is dangerous, and ignorant owners eventually give up their minis to join the growing legions of unwanted horses. The sad end for these horses is often slaughter.

Although I love nothing more than a long trail ride on my full-sized quarter horse, I have come to appreciate how minis can be excellent companions and are able to do jobs that a regular horse cannot. Horses have been bred to serve humans in many ways, from carrying knights into battle to pulling plows and even going down into coal mines. All are faithful members of the intricate web between human and equine. Minis are part of that wonderful interdependency.

Tracy Van Buskirk is a 35-year resident of Newtown and a board member of the Newtown Bridle Lands Association, www.nblact.com, a nonprofit volunteer organization formed in 1978 to foster an interest in horseback riding as well as preserving, protecting, and maintaining riding and hiking trails in the community. Horses have always been a part of her life. She owns a small bay quarter horse named Little Bear.

Rachel Petersen leads four minis through Fairfield Hills on a recent weekend. —photo courtesy Linda Petersen
Dually and Knight meet a fan at the Newtown Labor Day Parade. —photo courtesy Linda Petersen
Linda Petersen drives her matched team of minis at a regional competition. —photo courtesy Rachel Petersen
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