Perched in a carriage, Casey Waxler of Pittsburgh expertly guided her horse, Winning Colors, through orange cones and other obstacles Saturday inside the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park. It looked like a typical driving competition except for its reduced scale. Casey, 13, is a little smaller than many competitors. Winning Colors, standing 33 inches tall, is a lot smaller than most horses. He is, in fact, adorable.
"He's a weed-and-feed," Casey's mother, Cathy Waxler, said admiringly of Winning Colors as the girl brushed the horse before their event. "He mows your lawn and fertilizes it, too. What more could you want?"
Nearly 200 toddler-size equines are competing this weekend at the three-day Julep Cup 2011, sponsored by the Mid-America Miniature Horse Club. The show concludes Sunday. It's free with admission to the park.
Miniature horses are bred to stand no taller than 34 inches at the withers, the last hairs of the mane. While ponies can look like beer barrels with stubby legs, the "breed objective" for miniature horses is the tiniest possible perfect representation of a horse: trim, muscled, squarely set. But small.
They often are household pets or service animals, guiding the blind and working with therapy patients.
Fans of miniature horses say they hold several advantages over full-size horses, which stand twice as tall and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Children can fall off a miniature horse without breaking bones. Miniature horses are friendly, but if one decides to kick you, it won't remove your head. They're cheaper to feed and easier to groom and transport. They can enter your home just like any pet without destroying everything you own.
"Sometimes as you age, you can't do everything that you used to do. Working with big horses has its physical demands, to say nothing of the financial demands," said Joe Kahre, 48, who teaches opera to high school students in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Kahre described himself as a miniature horse hobbyist, with "only" two horses showing in the Julep Cup. One of his weekend neighbors in Barn 22, Ashley Harris of Brookville, Ohio, is a professional horse trainer who began her show career at the age of 2. Harris, now 27, had nine horses entered.
Some of Harris' miniature horses compete in jumping. They can clear a 44-inch-high barrier, which is considerably taller than themselves, the equivalent of an eight-foot jump to a regular horse, she said.
"I might jump over it myself when it's short to show them what to do," Harris said. "But most of the horses I work with want to please people. If they can do it, they'll do it."
"That's especially impressive when you consider that they don't have a rider on them urging them on, and we don't use whips," said Laura Mullins, the show manager. "It's a testament to their willingness to perform."