by Sally Colby
Carla DuRand and her mother Linda Palmer had plenty of experience with full-sized horses when they added miniature horses to their farm in Gettysburg, PA in 2007.
Training, showing and breeding horses for 30 years was somewhat of a preparation for minis, but Carla says they have learned a lot since their initial purchases, and they like to make sure people who visit Coolest Miniatures leave knowing more about minis than when they came.
Minis are used for a variety of purposes, including therapy animals, equine companions for people who feel they can no longer handle full-sized horses, and 4-H projects. For 4-H competition, minis can compete in halter, driving, in-hand trail and in-hand jumping (for three-year olds and over).
The minis purchased as 4-H projects leave the farm knowing the basics, ready for more training by the 4-Her. “They halter, lead and tie,” said Carla. “You can pick up their feet and clip them, but you can’t always walk out in the field with a halter and catch them easily. Ashley Warner, a 4-Her, has taken them in May and shows them in the middle of July — that’s how fast they learn.”
Those who purchase a mini as a companion for a full-sized horse should understand there are some management requirements that are different, including housing to prevent potential injury to the mini from a kick delivered by a large horse. “They’re also fed very differently,” said Carla. “A horse requires two percent of its body weight in hay, but so does a mini. Two percent of 1,000 pounds versus two percent of 200 to 250 pounds is a big difference. A mini that’s in with a big horse sharing hay will eat too much. Minis really need a drylot and much less grass.”
Carla says the average first-time buyer of a mini often chooses a baby, simply because they’re so cute. “They can get the colts cheapest, so that’s what they get,” she said. “Then they get a filly to go with that colt, the two are together and what often happens is the filly is in foal at the age of two.”
Carla added that breeding a young mini, accidentally or purposely, is one of the biggest mistakes many new owners make. “They aren’t easy to foal out in the first place,” she said. “They have no idea how to foal out a full-size horse, and big heartbreak can happen. The AMHR (American Miniature Horse Registry) rule is that a mare must reach her third birthday before she foals for the foal to be eligible for registration.”
With her background in Animal Science, Carla is aware of correct conformation and is careful to select both the mare and stallion to best complement one another. “I want to improve the breed,” she said. “I don’t want a really narrow, refined mare for breeding. I believe that someone who is breeding should be able to look at a colt and tell which ones are stallion quality and which ones aren’t, and geld the ones that aren’t. The AMHA (American Miniature Horse Association) has a gelding incentive program that provides an incentive for mini owners to earn money in that program.” Carla is adamant about gelding colts prior to selling them as pets, and believes that more mini breeders should do the same.
Although Linda and Carla have quite a few mares, they select just a few to breed each year. To ensure she is present when foaling is imminent, Carla has installed remote monitoring cameras in the foaling stalls in the barn, and uses Breeder Alert® monitors. “When they’re close to their due date, they wear a halter with the monitor,” Carla explained. “When the mare lays flat out for a certain amount of time (13 seconds), the alarm starts beeping.” The alert will beep if the mare is down and not foaling, but Carla has been foaling horses for long enough to know the difference between a mare stretching out to sleep versus one that is ready to foal.
Because minis are prone to genetic defects, Carla takes advantage of genetic testing to determine whether or not mares or stallions are carriers of certain genes. Several genetic limb issues occur in minis, including upward fixation of the patella, or locking stifle. This results in the inability to flex the leg, and is most often seen when the animal drags its toe as it is being led out of its stall after rest.
Dwarfism is another issue in miniature horses, but buyers can avoid this problem by insisting on genetic testing and purchasing potential breeding animals only from reputable breeders who have done the testing. The University of Kentucky now offers DNA testing for four known mutations of the aggrecan gene (ACAN) that is associated with dwarfism in minis. The testing is important for all breeding animals because a mini can have normal physical characteristics and still carry the gene/s that result in dwarfism.
Carla says some minis that carry the dwarf gene may have certain physical features such as short legs and a short, fat neck, but genetic testing is the only way to positively determine whether the horse is a carrier. A mare giving birth to a dwarf foal can be lost due to the difficulty of delivering a foal with a large forehead and other limb deformities.
Since colorful pinto minis are popular, animals that carry the overo lethal white syndrome (OLWS) gene should be identified. The lethal white foal has an underdeveloped intestinal system, and the same cells play a role in determining skin color, which is a white foal with blue eyes and in some cases, small black markings. OLWS foals are usually euthanized shortly after birth.
“As a breeders, we have to be able to look objectively at the herd and determine which animals can improve the breed and be willing to geld the males that won’t contribute positively to the breed,” said Carla. “Mini stallions sometimes retain a testicle that doesn’t drop until they’re three years old, so you might be stuck with stallion for a few years waiting for it to drop. Or you have to take it to a hospital to have it gelded.”
Like their full-size relatives, miniature horses require regular dental and farrier care. Minis are prone to dental issues, most likely due to having small heads with the same number of teeth as larger horses have.
Despite some of the challenges, Linda and Carla enjoy working with the minis and have noticed that they are highly intelligent. “They seem to process and think through things better than the big horses,” said Carla. “They don’t seem to have quite as much of the flighty response. They’ll step on a tarp and it won’t be as dramatic as a big horse doing it for the first time.”
As a seasoned pro who has trained halter and performance horses, Carla is adamant about minis having manners and learning about personal space. However, when the minis are young, she and Linda spend a lot of time playing with them so that they’re friendly and become easy to catch and work with.
“We love the minis,” said Carla. “It’s fun to watch them run around in the field. But we only raise a few each year, and sell them to good homes. That’s most important — that they get a good home. They’re cute and little, and not as high maintenance as a big horse, and they’re appealing to a lot of people.”
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