There’s no doubt that miniature horses are growing in popularity, and for good reason: they require less space than full-sized horses, and can keep the average horse owner busy with both serious competition and leisure activities.
Carla DuRand, who raises miniature horses with her mother Linda Palmer in Gettysburg, PA, says that although it’s easy to think of miniature horses in much the same way as a large dog, it’s important to remember that except for size, minis have all of the traits of full-size horses.
“They’re a horse, not a pony,” said Carla. “They’re herd animals, and they should have a buddy. They have the same nutritional needs as a horse, but most of them do fine on a small pasture as long as they have plenty of hay.” Carla recommends people keep miniatures only with other miniatures, but noted that some people successfully keep minis with large horses as companions. Miniature horses that are turned out with large horses should be provided with a water source they can easily access. Minis that share space with large horses should always be fed separately, and watched carefully for signs of bullying or injury.
The American Miniature Horse Association (AMHA), based in Texas, registers only minis measuring less than 34 inches. AMHA horses start out with a temporary 36-month registration. If a horse reaches 36 months and still measures 34 inches or less at the last hair of the mane, it qualifies for permanent registration. The American Miniature Horse Registry (AMHR) is based in Illinois, and has two height categories. Horses that measure up to 34 inches qualify for the ‘A’ division, while horses between 34 and 38 inches are registered in the ‘B’ division.
Minis are suitable for first-time horse owners, but must be managed in the same way as a full-size horse with regular immunizations, hoof trimming and dental work. Miniature horses can have unique dental issues, so it’s important to seek an equine dental practitioner who has experience with minis.
One of the most visually appealing features of minis is their copious hair coat, but all that hair can lead to problems. Most mini owners clip their horses in spring to avoid problems such as heat stress, external parasites and rain rot.
Local, regional and national competitions can keep a miniature horse owner busy throughout the season. Minis are shown in both halter and performance events such as driving and in-hand trail competition. Some miniature horses are trained for riding, and with proper training, can be ridden by very small children. Miniature horses have also been trained for use as therapy animals, and many make regular trips to nursing homes and other care facilities where they provide a source of joy for residents.
Because their size makes them less intimidating, minis are perfect for introducing young children to horses. Children can learn to groom, lead and work with horses that are safer simply due to their size. However, children should learn that while these horses are small, safe handling is still important. And just like large horses without proper groundwork training, miniature horses can have behavioral issues if they haven’t been taught manners.
As is the case with standard-size horses, minis should only be bred by those who have experience in breeding horses. “If you’re going to breed,” said Carla, “you have to know how to foal them out. They can’t be just bred and left alone to foal on their own.” Carla has extensive experience in foaling both large mares and minis, and has noticed that miniature horses seem to have more problems during foaling. “There’s a lot of mis-positioning, and you have to be prepared to reposition the legs,” she said. “They’ll often have one leg back.” Newborn minis weigh only 20 to 25 pounds, and require the same close attention as standard-size newborn foals, including blanketing in cool weather.
One unfortunate result of selection for small horses is dwarfism. In some cases, the defect is almost unnoticeable, but many dwarves have jaw, limb or spinal deformities. Although most conscientious breeders have always been careful to avoid breeding animals with known dwarfism, until recently, there was no genetic test for dwarfism. Thanks to the work of John Eberth, MS, who worked on the issue at the University of Kentucky, miniature horse breeders can now test for the mutation that results in dwarfism. Through the genetic test, carriers can be identified, and bred only to miniature horses that do not carry any of the genetic mutations for dwarfism.