Monday, January 17, 2011

Miniature Horses: Not Just Another Pony

Look, Mom!  A baby neigh!
Can you hear the oohs and aahs?  That’s the sound of anyone, anywhere on first meeting with a miniature horse.  With truckloads of them appearing cheap or free on Craigslist and beyond, they are becoming quite the popular family addition.  It is virtually impossible not to be both attracted to and fascinated by what looks like a tiny version of a big horse.  Rest assured, the mini is anything but a small version of anything you’ve ever met. 

The first misconception we’ll set aside is that a mini is a pony.  There are many breeds of ponies, which are essentially small horses, ranging upward from the furry Shetland that most people picture when the word pony comes up.  Ponies range in size from pretty small to just under 14 hands high (that’s 56 inches at the shoulder).  Most ponies are quite large enough for a child to ride, and the larger pony breeds make excellent show horses as they are capable of jumping and doing pretty much anything else a child up to the age of, say, 40, might want a pony to do.  As long as one keeps the 20% rule in mind (an equine can safely carry roughly 20% of its own body weight in rider and equipment add-ons), ponies may be a good choice for many riders of any age.

The mini is a breed unto itself.  An offshoot of the Shetland pony (and registered under the auspices of the AMHA and AMHR arms of the Shetland Pony Association), miniature horses were arguably bred to haul ore carts out of mines.  Their small size, brave nature, and toughness were undoubtedly perfect for the task.  There is some discussion as to the validity of this explanation for their development, but as Shetland ponies were known to be used in that capacity, it would not be surprising to find that an even smaller breed was developed to make the hard life of a miner just a tad easier. 
Ready?  Of course I'm ready!  I'm always ready.

But the differences between miniature horses and the rest of the equine world don’t stop with their origin.  Miniature horses are very different in their attitudes and emotional makeup from the larger breeds.  Call it "Little Big Man" syndrome, if you like, but a pit bull has nothing on a mini.  As a result, owning and training a mini is something not to be undertaken lightly or without some preparation.

Size alone can be a huge issue when you bring a mini home.  Many boarding farms can’t accommodate a horse small enough to walk under most electric fences.  I found it necessary to re-tool a stall at considerable expense just so my new BFF could see out the door and eat without standing on his toes.  The mid-range for minis is 34 inches at the withers (that’s 8.2 hands, for you jargon-picky people).  They come much smaller and a little larger, and they are grouped into “A” (under 34 inches) and “B” (over 34 inches) classes.  Conformation is key.  A mini, unlike some small pony breeds, should have the same proportions as a full-sized horse without the shortened legs, huge belly, or out-sized head that is often the result of pony breeders’ attempts to reduce the size of their product.  A mini’s legs should be well-conformed and proportional in terms of length of bone, and his knees should not be huge and knobby, knocked, or in any other way out-of-true. 

A well-bred mini is easy to come by if you are willing to pay a good price and travel to a reputable breeding farm.  Sadly, because of their small size and willing nature, minis are a great target for bad backyard breeding.  If the full-grown horse, at roughly the size of a yearling black bear cub, is cute, then the babies are almost painfully so.  A mini foal is about the size of a spaniel, small enough to pick up and hug or bring into the house (not recommended, but not unheard-of).
The tall and short of it

Miniature horses, though, do not have the same personality as their larger cousins.  They are incredibly, almost preternaturally, bright overall.  Granted, there is a full range of IQ’s available in any animal species, including humans.  Witness the fact that you’re considering owning horses or already do while your neighbors are off on a cruise or shopping for a new car.  But in all my years of horse life—more than 50 at last count—I have never met a critter easier to train or more difficult to get a handle on than the mini. 

Clicker training a mini is a breeze, if he’s in the mood.  My personal mini had had little in the way of training other than basic breaking to drive and ground manners when I got him.  Within an hour I had him working with the clicker, and two days later he was responding to the canine commands I (not, sadly, my dog) learned in obedience school.  So intelligent was he that I ran out of things to teach him within a week.  So much fun is he to work with that I can hardly keep myself from running out to the barn just to hang out with him for a bit and discuss possible options for our next training experience. 

Their small stature belies a huge ego and even larger view of the world.  This makes them wonderful companions, and minis are currently being trained (and used successfully) by The Seeing Eye and other groups whose goal is to help handicapped humans toward independent living.  As attitudinal as my mini is (and that is considerable, as he was a stud when I bought him), bring a toddler near him and he will stand stock still while he’s groped, mauled, poked at and crawled on.    He is open to discussion on whatever you want him to do, though if it’s not fun or he finds the end result either boring or frightening, he’s not likely to offer much in the way of cooperation.  It’s amazing how heavy 200 pounds of dead weight at the end of a lead can be when all four hooves are firmly planted.  But offer a little give-and-take, a cookie or two, and demonstrate for him that the outcome will be to his benefit, and you won’t find a more dedicated learner. 
Duke's workmanlike attitude at work

Most minis are too small to be ridden, but the larger ones can (depending on temperament) make fine first ponies for very small children.  Duke is right-sized for my grandson, but his short-legged walk turned out to be too choppy for an unbalanced toddler, so that's a consideration as well.  Just be sure the one you’ve chosen was truly broke and trained for that purpose. Don’t just spring it on him.  Minis are even more averse to surprises than are larger horses.  Driving is truly their forte, and wonderful custom-built carts and tiny harnesses are both available and inexpensive enough to warrant experimenting.  More and more local shows in this area are including minis in their pony driving classes, which is testimony to how popular the breed is becoming. 

So, if you’re thinking of adding to your herd, or if you want an only pony to decorate your backyard, think small but think clearly. 

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