Mighty Miniature Horses

They say the best things come in small packages, and in this case, it's true. Miniature Horses have all the best characteristics of the full-size horse, but come in an easy-to-manage version. By Cathy Laws for EquiSearch.
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They say the best things come in small packages, and in this case, it's true. Miniature Horses have all the best characteristics of the full-size horse, but come in an easy-to-manage version. By Cathy Laws for EquiSearch.

Pat Nagle had never given much thought to Miniature Horses before the day she traded a truck for one she brought home in the back seat of her car. "We caused quite a stir," she remembers. "He held his little head out of the window and whickered the whole way. Heads were turning so much that I'm sure we caused more than one case of whiplash that day."

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When Pat pulled up in the driveway with "Charlie" all those years ago, her husband, Bob, stared at the tiny horse poking his head out of his wife's car window. "What are you going to DO with it?" the former mounted policeman asked. Pat quickly came up with a good answer: Charlie became known as FFF (for Flower Field Farms) Sir Charles, and the Nagles went into business with their first breeding stallion.

That was more than 20 years ago. Today, happily ensconced among the Percherons, Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses and other equines on the Nagles' Flower Field Farms in Rockford, Tennessee, are 70-plus Miniatures.

What CAN you do with a horse whose head reaches only up to your mid-section, you ask? Plenty, it seems. Miniature Horse owners show their animals in halter and performance classes, drive them, and use them in therapeutic work with disabled people. Some prefer "minis" because they are easy for children and older people to handle and enjoy. And a few advocates are even training Miniature Horses to be guides for the blind.

"They really have the temperament of horses, not ponies," says Pat Nagle. "They are easily trained, have a gentle nature, can drive and pull four times their own weight--they're very smooth. And they just eat up being petted."

Although colorful myths abound about the origin of the Miniature Horse, contemporary historians theorize that the breed is a derivative of many sources, particularly the Shetland pony. In prehistoric times, small horse breeds were likely the products of surviving harsh natural climates and limited feed sources. As people's knowledge of genetics grew, it became possible to breed specifically for size. At various times in history, Miniature Horses have been bred as pets and royal gifts, for research, mining work and exhibitions.

An organization devoted to small equines, the American Shetland Pony Club, includes the American Miniature Horse Registry along with the Classic American Shetland Pony, the Modern American Shetland Pony and the American Show Pony Registry. Founded in 1888, the ASPC began registering Miniature Horses in 1971. The AMHR includes an A division, registering horses that stand 34 inches or under at the last hair of the mane, and a B division, including horses that stand up to 38 inches. (Regular-size Shetlands stand up to 46 inches.)

In 1978 the American Miniature Horse Association, Inc., was formed to organize and encourage the breeding, use and perpetuation of the American Miniature Horse, separate and apart from ponies and other small equines. The organization registers animals not exceeding 34 inches at the last hair of the mane. To date, AMHA has registered more than 125,000 Miniature Horses.

The main difference between the two organizations is that AMHR accepts horses over 34 inches, while AMHA registers no horse over that height. Many horses are registered with both organizations, so they may be entered in AMHA and AMHR shows.

Each group sanctions shows all over the country, featuring such divisions as driving pleasure, driving roadster, obstacle-in-hand, obstacle driving, jumping, versatility and pairs. "We're introducing chariot racing this year," says Dave Diemer, executive secretary of AMHR, "and think it will be a big hit."

Showing is a favorite activity among Miniature Horse owners, and the best part is that just about anyone can participate. "We have everyone from tiny children through senior adults exhibiting at our shows," says Diemer. "We even have owners that compete in motorized wheelchairs."

Both AMHA and AMHR are enjoying steady growth, with AMHA registrations increasing at "about 10 percent each year," according to executive director Duane McPherson. Diemer says that AMHR has recorded more than 100,000 registrations and that the organization's youth program is particularly strong.

If the response to the Miniature Horses at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington is any clue, the breed will continue to grow in popularity. "They are real crowd-pleasers," says Breeds Barn manager Denny Chapman, "and they are always happy to be around people. They particularly love children."

The Horse Park is home to five Miniature geldings--four matched bays and one pinto. The bays were donated to the facility in the mid-1990s by the Nagles, who responded to a request by R.K. Walker, director of equine operations, for a matched four-in-hand suitable for driving exhibitions. Throughout the summer the bays take turns pulling a two-horse hitch during the 2 p.m. Parade of Breeds show five days a week. And on special occasions, all the bays perform together as a four-in-hand. "Sometimes we hook one up for a racing sulky exhibit," says Chapman. "They even have racing minis now."

Not to be outdone by his driving-team compatriots, the pinto, Jester, performs tricks to the delight of park visitors. He's no one-trick mini, either. Jester's repertoire includes standing on a podium, jumping, rearing, bowing, sidepasses, and "barrel racing," where he knocks over a barrel and pushes it with his nose. And for an encore? "Jester smiles," says Chapman.

Perhaps Jester smiles because he knows he's really a big guy trapped in a tiny body. "They all think they should live in the Draft Barn," says Chapman. "They think they're huge. They have no clue they are minis."