WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — The breeze is brisk and rain has rendered trails ankle deep in mud, but the 3-foot-tall horses cavorting at this Walnut Creek refuge don’t care. Friendly humans are on hand to feed, groom and exercise the little horses, none of which seems to know it’s not a Clydesdale.
It’s all part of a grand plan, run by volunteers who have rescued and found homes for more than 400 miniature horses that were abused, neglected or headed for the slaughterhouse.
The minis — who look exactly like scaled down, full-grown horses — are under the care of Mary Stewart and her 6-year-old nonprofit Angels for Minis. So far, her team has rescued 441 miniature horses, nursed them back to health and found permanent homes for almost all of them.
Mini horses were selectively bred over the centuries to be small, around 34 to 38 inches high. They weren’t meant to be ridden; the genetics to produce a small horse have also produced a weak back. But they are very strong — the minis initially found jobs pulling carts in coal mines — and so smart, they can be trained as service animals, like dogs, but with a 40-year life span. Many serve as guide animals for the blind.
But the same designer pet trend that brought potbelly pigs and miniature goats into homes, made mini horses popular. When the small horses began selling for $2,000 and up, unscrupulous breeders went into overdrive.
Despite their size and, let’s face it, adorableness, miniature horses are livestock, which is something people can forget.
That’s where Angels for Minis comes in. The horses arrive in Stewart’s care from a variety of sources. Some are voluntarily surrendered to animal control when the owners realize they’re in over their heads; others are removed from abusive or neglected conditions. Sometimes circumstances change and the horse can’t be cared for.
“We take them without judgment,” Stewart says.
Stewart and her team travel throughout the Western United States whenever the call arises, which is often. They’ve taken minis from hoarding situations, including a case in Oregon, where officers seized 163 horses living in miserable conditions.
Saved from slaughter
The horses also regularly end up headed for the slaughterhouse, sold in Texas at “kill buyer auctions,” where buyers purchase horses for the dog food market in Mexico. Minis often are a cheap source of meat. Stewart, who visits the auctions every couple of months, says some buyers spare the minis from slaughter, but make a quick profit by selling them at a price far above their auction cost. Stewart buys as many as she can afford and transport.
Stewart’s role as horse rescuer was mostly accidental. She was working with Golden Gate Basset Rescue when she arrived at the Contra Costa County Animal Shelter one day in 2013 to pick up two dogs. The shelter officer, knowing Stewart owned horses, asked her about taking a miniature horse they had picked up, suggesting Stewart start a mini rescue. When Stewart asked how many of the small horses she could expect per year, the officer said maybe 10 or 15.
“That first year and a half, we got over 200,” Stewart says, with not an ounce of regret in her voice.
The rescue operation, she says, couldn’t survive without volunteers, starting with volunteer coordinator Laurie Bellet and her husband, Neal.
Minis are loving and sweet, but they have the same temperament as their larger cousins. They’re not house pets, but they also don’t do well on pasture lands. They like smaller, outdoor enclosures, Stewart says, and most importantly, they need company.
“They are herd animals,” Stewart says. “You need two of them.”
Angels for Minis eventually finds good homes for the horses. The length of stay at the rescue varies, depending on the care the horse needs. Some were abused and take special treatment to overcome their fears. Others are in poor health. Their hooves often are overgrown and their owners have neglected some basic horse care.
Stewart won’t adopt a horse to anyone who hasn’t had horse experience, or who isn’t willing to learn about those horses before taking one — or two — home.