Ben Nolt, President and Co-Founder of Capital Area Therapeutic Riding Association (CATRA), narrated for CATRA’s “Miniature Horse Extravaganza” as his all-volunteer assistants put the miniature horses and donkeys through their paces and tricks at the Main Horse Area at Ag Progress Days 2015.
The miniature horses and donkeys, all owned by CATRA, moved through obstacle courses, pushed large balls through hoops, jumped over obstacles of varying heights, and stood quietly with their forelegs elevated.
To some extent, CATRA’s miniature Mediterranean donkeys stole the show. “These small donkeys are a separate breed, originating in Sardinia and Sicily,” explained Nolt. “In their home countries they did important work for their owners. Strong sturdy pack animals, after age 3 they carried food from village to village and carried water up the mountains. They could be trained to pull grinding stones in peasants’ homes to grind grain.”
The original Sicilian and Sardinian miniature donkeys are now nearly extinct in their native lands. “Fortunately,” Nolt continued, “about 700 of them were imported into the U.S. from the UK, and they can now be found all across the U.S., in all colors, and are popular as pets and service animals. They are hardy, with few health problems. The miniature Mediterranean donkeys we know in the U.S. today came from interbreeding the Sicilian and Sardinian animals.”
Many hours have been spent training the two miniature donkeys that appeared at Ag Progress Days, Little Patches, who has been handled by Jenna for almost two years, and Cotton Candy, who has been handled by Joel for about one year. They had to be taught, for example, not to be afraid when spectators start opening umbrellas when it starts to rain at a show, and not to fear being covered with a tarp, something equines instinctively flee from.
They are affectionate, intelligent animals, and can form strong bonds with humans. They can also be trained to pull carts. In training the miniature donkeys and horses, Nolt continued, “It’s important that your animal follow you wherever you go. We encourage handlers to have a goal. You need a thinking donkey or horse and a thinking handler for success. The minis are less intimidating than full-sized horses for therapy work.
A lot of important life lessons can be learned from working with horses, including handling frustration and anger differently; developing problem solving skills; improving decision making and communication skills; trusting yourself and others; focusing on your goals; and uncovering your strengths.
CATRA gives about 100 horsemanship lessons a week, each requiring from 1 to 4 volunteers to assist, depending on the degree of disability of the student. Volunteers also clean out stalls, and feed, groom, and have regular training sessions with their animals.
Pennsylvania has a popular miniature horse division in the state 4-H program. There is now also a national miniature horse show, adding to the fun.