Maximizing Mini Health
- Jul 1, 2013
Several pint-sized horses careen across the pasture at breakneck speeds, alternately impressing observers with their grace and garnering giggles with their dainty antics. They might be smaller than their full-sized horse counterparts, but their needs are unique, their bodies are just as complex, and their conditions just as grave.
The issues Miniature Horses can face are structural, dental, dietary, disease-related, and reproductive. And as with any horse, keeping a Mini healthy requires staying alert and responding quickly to signs of trouble. The plus side? “Minis can easily live into their 30s,” says Rebecca Frankeny, VMD, author of Miniature Horses: A Veterinary Guide for Owners and Breeders and owner of Juniata Mobile Veterinary Service, in Central Pennsylvania. “If they’re not allowed to get too fat and their legs are straight, they tend not to develop arthritis and other limiting conditions that the big horses get. And, not carrying people around, they don’t put that much wear and tear on their legs and bodies. So they tend to stay sound for years and years.”
In this article we’ll discuss how to keep your Miniature Horses happy and healthy in your pastures for years to come.
Look that Mini in the Mouth
Typically, expert dental care is more crucial for Miniature Horses than it is for full-sized horses. Mary DeLorey, DVM, whose Northwest Equine Dentistry serves Washington state and Western Idaho, explains that although Minis have been bred for very small faces and skulls, their teeth haven’t shrunk accordingly. And, like full-sized horses, they have 24 cheek teeth—six upper and six lower on each side—and there’s little space for all those teeth to fit comfortably. Teeth might emerge into that cramped area malformed, misaligned, and even rotated up to 90 degrees. “And you can’t de-rotate a tooth,” Delorey explains. “It will likely need to come out—preferably before it endangers adjacent teeth.”
So she advises giving a Miniature his first thorough dental examination before age 2 and continuing regular exams every six to eight months until the horse is mature, with all adult teeth in place. Then make sure the animal’s yearly physical—and any prepurchase exam—includes a full-mouth dental examination.
And if a Mini’s mouth isn’t checked? Delorey has been called to see Miniatures that “are 16 or 17 years old, never had dental care, and have gone from ‘butterball’ fat to extremely thin in six months,” she says. “I look in the mouth and find teeth coming in side by side, instead of end to end, so they haven’t worn properly, leaving long, sharp spikes that have created holes in the horse’s cheeks or craters in his tongue. The owner may not have suspected a problem because horses will keep eating until they can’t.” By the time drastic weight loss occurs, the animal has been in pain for a very long time.
Many Mini owners attest that keeping their tiny charges at a good weight is very difficult. “There’s a saying that they get fat breathing air,” Frankeny says. So before buying a Mini, she suggests owners “think about its living space. Having a drylot—a paddock with no grass in it, or ‘sacrifice area’—is really important, because a Mini turned out with access to grass 24/7 will get fat, fat, fat.”
She says the Minis at her barn spend only an hour on pasture a day, but they look good because of it.
“Where people make mistakes is in feeding too much,” Frankeny says, possibly because they base portion size on an incorrect weight estimate. Instead of “eyeballing” or using a weight tape, she recommends using this calculation formula for determining a Mini’s weight:
Weight (pounds) x (9.36 x girth inches) + (5 x body length in inches) - 348.5.
Fortunately, many feed companies now produce low-calorie pelleted feeds and supplements that owners can offer. Work with your nutritionist or veterinarian to determine your Mini’s nutritional needs, says Frankeny.
Keeping Minis’ weight under control isn’t just for good looks. They start out at greater risk than full-sized horses for the metabolic disorder hyperlipemia, or fatty-liver disease (discussed in more detail later), that obesity exacerbates. And getting an already heavy Mini to lose weight can be challenging: “You have to cut back the feed, but horses must eat a certain percentage of their body weight daily just to keep the gut working,” says Frankeny. “Trying to ‘starve’ a horse thin, you could end up with a colic. So the best course is prevention. If a Mini is already fat, consult with your veterinarian to devise a weight-reduction plan.”
Miniature Horses are prone to two types of colic: sand colic and impaction from fecaliths.
“Because Minis are almost always on a diet, they tend to poke around in the dirt for every little scrap of vegetation,” Frankeny says. “When I practiced in Nevada and Missouri, where the soil was sandy, I saw a lot of sand colic: colitis (irritation of the colon), producing diarrhea in some cases, and actual impaction by a hardened mass of sand in others.”
To prevent sand colic, notes Frankeny, avoid feeding Minis on the ground in a sandy environment and work with a veterinarian to develop a feeding protocol based on the individual horse’s risk factors.
Minis are more likely to develop fecaliths than other horses. “A fecalith is an impaction—sort of a hard ball, compounded of manure and things like stemmy forage and hair or string, that gets stuck in the small colon,” Frankeny explains.
This condition, however, is more difficult to prevent than other colics; contact your veterinarian if your Mini exhibits clinical signs of colic (e.g., turning the head to the flank, frequent pawing, and lying down and getting back up repeatedly, etc.).
Hyperlipemia can arise in Minis when stressful situations (e.g., trailering) cause a release of fat reserves into the bloodstream; if insulin doesn’t convert these reserves to glucose when they reach the liver, they remain in the bloodstream, creating “fatty” blood that can cause liver failure and even death.
“In some cases,” Frankeny says, “the first sign you see of a fatty-liver problem is just that the Mini isn’t eating. There’s no clue that anything else is going on. But there aren’t many finicky eaters in the Mini world—so when a Mini doesn’t eat, call your veterinarian. If a secondary problem with the liver is developing, prompt attention provides the best chance of reversing the problem.”
Producing a Mini Mini
For any owner wanting to breed a Miniature mare, Frankeny advises first having a veterinarian check for health issues that might impact the mare or her foal.
The breeding process itself is much the same as for full-sized horses: An owner generally brings the mare to the stallion for live cover, and the stallion’s owners spell out preliminary requirements such as uterine cultures.
In full-sized mares, veterinarians typically ascertain pregnancy via rectal ultrasound 14 to 17 days after breeding. “But many veterinarians aren’t comfortable doing rectal exams on Minis because they’re so small,” Frankeny says. “Instead, when we anticipate the mare is about six weeks along, we ultrasound the abdomen.”
Statistically, Miniature Horses are more likely than big horses to abort or to experience dystocia—a difficult delivery. For that reason, Frankeny says, Mini mare owners should be present for the foaling and have a veterinarian on call to assist if needed. “I’d rather show up and find everything’s okay than have a client not call until she thinks there’s a problem,” Frankeny says.
One more pre-delivery caution: Although Minis can develop eclampsia (a sudden drop in systemic calcium levels), Frankeny recommends giving the pregnant mare “a balanced diet, not a super-high-calcium diet. Wait until the foal is born to bump up the alfalfa.” If the mare’s body acclimates to high levels of calcium during pregnancy, it won’t be prepared to mobilize calcium that’s suddenly needed for both the nursing foal and the mare.
After delivery, Mini foals tend to get on their feet fast; many are up and nursing within a half-hour, says Frankeny. “So a baby that seems really slow getting up or nursing is cause for alarm,” she says.
Frankeny recommends having the veterinarian evaluate the foal 12 to 24 hours after delivery for typical indicators of health, such as adequate antibodies in the blood (provided by colostrum, the foal’s first milk) and checking that the meconium (first feces) has been eliminated. This is also a good time to look for conformational problems, displaced patellas (knee caps), signs of dwarfism, or other common Mini irregularities.
More Mini Matters
For all that can go wrong because of their physiological differences, there are many ways to support Minis’ vitality and help them live long, healthy, lives.
Because you can’t simply hop on a Mini’s back and go for a hack, you must get creative to keep him fit. “It’s amazing how many things you can do with Minis,” says Frankeny. “They’re very athletic and love to play; explore ways to have fun with them. I had one client whose Mini went jogging with her every day. They can learn to kick balls around. And imagine how much fun doing agility with a Mini would be.”
Measure and administer drugs for Minis carefully and with a veterinarian’s guidance. Dewormers, for instance, come in tubes designed for big horses: “When you twist the dial down for the appropriate (Mini) dosage, make sure it gets well-locked,” Frankeny advises.
Good farriery is just as important for Minis as it is for horses; however, these tiny charges do not require shoeing. Also, Frankeny notes that while any horse can founder under the right circumstances, Minis seem to be less prone to founder than ponies.
Minis tend to grow their heavy winter coats in September and shed them around July. As spring weather warms a Mini can start sweating under that long coat and dry poorly, putting him at risk for skin diseases. You might need to get the clippers out and help him with the shedding process. Another caution: A heavy coat can mask weight loss, “so regularly put your hands on and make sure your Mini isn’t ribby under all that hair,” Frankey says. “Minis shouldn’t be thin; if yours is, something’s wrong and you should have your veterinarian check your Mini and your feeding program.”
They matter! “Some Minis, like some miniature dogs, have owners who think they’re so little and cute that they don’t need discipline—but they do,” Frankeny says. “Minis are small, but they are horses; they can cause serious injury.”
your Mini to stand patiently for the farrier or the vet, and do not allow him to get mouthy and bite people. “Remember,” says Frankeny, “the surest way to lose your farrier and your vet is to have an ill-mannered horse.”
Remember that smaller bodies don’t mean fewer (or smaller) problems; Miniature Horses are just as complex as their half-ton cousins. Certain emergencies, such as these eager eaters going off their feed, warrant immediate veterinary attention.
“If you want an animal that will be a low-maintenance friend for a long time, you need to be careful,” she says. “A Mini with medical problems quickly becomes just as expensive as a big horse.” Selecting a partner in caring for these special horses is crucial, and she advises finding a local veterinarian comfortable working with Minis and a good farrier willing to trim their tiny feet.
About the Author
D.J. Carey Lyons is a lifelong resident of Chester County, Pa. She also has written for USDF Connection, Practical Horseman, Equine Images, and Dressage & CT.