Little Horses, Big Fun

Published 3:15 pm Thursday, June 1, 2017

Written and photos by Judy Heinrich

Connie Brown’s dressage horse completely changed her life…. just not the in way she might have expected.

Connie and her husband, Jeff, were living in Wellington, Fla., where Connie had been a human and equine massage therapist for 20 years. She was also a 32-year dressage rider who owned and rode “Wonderland,” a Hanoverian from Germany, who was a solid Prix Saint Georges horse and a wonderful schoolmaster. But when Connie bought a young mare to train up as Wonderland’s eventual replacement, it became clear that Wonderland was not happy to have “Gracie” taken away for schooling. So someone suggested that Connie get him a miniature horse to keep him company. And so she did.

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“I had no idea what you could do with minis and I wanted to know what I could do with mine other than it just being a companion,” Connie says. “So the woman I bought mine from invited me to go to a show and I was blown away. Minis weren’t just shown at halter; they could drive, jump in-hand, do in-hand obstacle courses and more. So I started by teaching my mini to drive.”

For their anniversary gift one year, the Browns took a trip to the AMHA World Show in Fort Worth, which Connie describes as “a whole other world – it made me realize how seriously people took these horses.”

Are they ponies?

While miniature horses may be similar in size to some small ponies, they are actually a separate breed, believed to have originated with the Falabella horse, a diminutive rare breed still in existence today.

“A lot of people mistake minis for ponies but I think the personality is different,” says Connie. “Nothing against ponies, I love them, but they are sometimes mischievous and watching you to see what they can get away with. Minis, when handled correctly, just want to please you. I think of them as a cross between a horse and a yellow lab! They’re just as loving as labs are.”

There are two national registries for miniature horses, the American Miniature Horse Registry (AMHR), which focuses on breeding for refinement and showing at halter, and the American Miniature Horse Association (AMHA), which is geared more toward performance. There are slight differences in height standards between the organizations and the conformation has evolved differently, with the AMHA-types tending to have more bone in the leg and angle in the shoulder, as needed for driving and jumping.

Breeding for performance

In addition to her successful show career, Connie got involved in breeding and selling minis for performance, painstakingly researching bloodlines to try and improve the line and get a better stallion. Since moving to Polk County 10 years ago, she has given up breeding, in part because she became aware of how often minis are bred indiscriminately and end up at equine rescue organizations as a result.

“Some people breed them irresponsibly or just leave groups of mares and stallions together to breed at will. Minis can have difficult births because of their size and confirmation, similar to how bulldogs may have difficult births because of their large heads. A responsible breeder has to understand the risk, be very aware of timing, and be able to intervene or call in a vet as soon as necessary,” Connie says. Sadly, she has had irresponsible breeders tell her that they breed x-number of minis a year and lose x-percent at birth.

Even being born healthy doesn’t guarantee a mini a good life, Connie says. “Maybe they were bought for children but the children eventually lose interest and the minis are left to their own devices. Or people don’t realize minis need the same kind of routine care – hoof, dental, vaccinations – as large horses.”

Rescue and rehab

Once she phased out of breeding, Connie became active in rescuing, rehabbing and training minis for new homes, at one point having as many as 21 at her farm. Part of the training is evaluating where a mini fits, in terms of what kind of activity suits him or her. And in finding new homes, whether for rescues or back when she was breeding and selling, Connie “enjoys putting the right horse with the right owner. Seeing what their goals are and making sure it’s a good match.”

She still helps with rehabbing when needed and is also involved with Hope Remains Ranch, an organization in Spartanburg County that uses minis in programs for children who have been abused or have physical, mental or emotional disabilities. Hope Remains also works with veterans who have PTSD, and takes minis off-site to schools and nursing homes.

“People who might be afraid of being near a big horse
aren’t intimidated by the minis,” Connie says. “They are even being trained now as seeing-eye animals, with the advantage that they have a much longer life than a service dog does, up to 40 years.”

Advocate for the breed

Most of Connie’s time with minis today is spent as an advocate for the breed and a mentor for people who want to get involved and see what minis are all about. “Most of the interest comes from baby-boomers and I’m a perfect example of that,” she says. “Now I give lessons and have fun days for people who were jumping fences 20 years ago but realized as they got older that it’s harder to get on a big horse and easier to get hurt if you fall off. Minis are a fun alternative for staying involved with horses at any age.”  

In our area the Carolina Carriage Club is a great organization for people who want to drive and possibly show their minis – actually called “Very Small Equines” or VSEs in the competitive driving world. Minis can also be driven on trails at FENCE and at Windridge Farm near Shelby, and Connie has permission from some private landowners to bring minis for drives on their properties.

Connie also started the Foothills Miniature Horse Club for people who don’t drive their minis but enjoy in-hand activities like obstacle courses or jumping. And while many think they would never be interested in showing, Connie says once they get their feet wet, they often change their minds. “We offer a lot of fun, non-threatening in-hand shows for minis that people can enjoy.”

In fact, Connie says the Carolina Carriage Club has even had her design an in-hand course for minis at its end-of-season Pleasure Show for the last two years. “In-hand activities are becoming more recognized, accepted and popular.”

If Connie has anything to do with it, minis in general will become more recognized, popular, and well cared for. “I just love sharing what I know about miniature horses and/or carriage driving with anyone who is interested. That’s part of what I’m all about really, introducing minis to people who don’t know about them. I welcome anyone who wants to learn about them to contact me at Green Creek Miniature Horses, at 828-980-4403.” •