When I was a wet-behind-the-ears recent vet school graduate, I didn’t have much experience with miniature horses. I rode Saddlebreds for a while in high school and even though my beloved Wimpy was a Connemara pony, he was a large pony. Frankly, I didn’t see the point behind the shrimpy equines. You can’t ride them, so ... what exactly does one do with a miniature horse?
The large animal practice I joined after school had a decent number of mini horse clients. I soon learned that these little buggers have the most loving, devoted owners, and some very large potential.
One of the first lessons I learned working with miniature horses is that even though these equines are small, they are still very much equine. Sharing the same fight or flight instincts, minis react the same way as horses of regular size do to sudden, unexpected stimuli; like, say, a needle poke. Granted, when a mini steps on your foot, it’s not as painful as a thousand-pounder standing on your toes, but a bite is still a bite — and watch your shins! Those little guys kick at exactly shin-level.
Another important lesson in mini-etiquette is to never, ever refer to them as ponies. You will be told most emphatically that they are miniature horses, not ponies. You may in fact be wondering what the difference is between a pony and a miniature horse. All horses are measured in height at the highest point of the withers (shoulders) by a unit called a "hand." One hand equals four inches. At maturity, if a horse is less than 14.2 hands tall, it is classified as a pony. However, miniature horses are far smaller than this. According to the American Miniature Horse Association, to register as a miniature, the horse must not be more than 34 inches in height at the withers, which is equivalent to a mere 8.2 hands. Another registry in the U.S., the American Miniature Horse Registry, allows miniatures to register if they are up to 38 inches in height.
So, now that we know the exact specifications for a miniature horse, again the question begs an answer: So what does one actually do with a miniature horse? Most of the minis I see are companion pets. Cute little things that are pretty to look at, fun to groom and fawn over, and they help keep the grass low. A few others are actual show horses that compete in halter classes, where they are judged on conformation and how they fit the breed description, and yet others are trained to harness and are strong enough to pull a cart carrying one person.
Admittedly, the above mini talents are at best on par with what you can do with a pony or horse, aside from riding. However, where minis really shine, and in fact outshine equines of greater stature, is their propensity for becoming therapy animals. Mini horses can be trained to go to hospitals and retirement communities to provide companionship to people in need. Minis can also be specifically trained to aid people with disabilities, with their small size being a huge advantage in terms of accessibility to indoor areas and manageability for their handlers. In fact, just recently, the Illinois Senate passed a bill that re-defined service animals to include miniature horses along with dogs.
Although I don’t have any seeing-eye minis as patients at the moment, I have seen an occasional mini leading someone down the sidewalk. Although nowhere near as common as the seeing-eye dog, these minis certainly appear steadfast and calm, and their handlers appear absolutely besotted with their companions. Now, not even my darling Wimpy could do what those service minis are doing, which is really saying something. Let’s hear it for these little guys!
Dr. Anna O’Brien