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Little horses, big hearts on Brook Road


Lyons couple finds happiness in raising dog-sized, mini ponies



TINY HORSES HAVE LONG HISTORY Granted that miniatures are cute and that there is an entire industry built around showing the horses. But where did they come from? According to the AMHA, in the 17th century, miniature horses were bred as pets for Europe's Habsburg nobility. Records from the court of the French King Louis XIV, about 1650, note the presence of tiny horses among the exotic creatures in the king's zoo. Paintings from the 1700s featured the miniature horse. And in England, Lady Estella Hope and her sisters carried on a breeding program from original English lines into the mid-nineteen hundreds. The little horses arrived in the United States as curiosities about 1888. Not all miniatures were born with silver bridles in their mouths. Some miniatures were bred to pull mine carts full of ore through tight passages underground. While the mining industry no longer uses miniature horses to move ore, miniatures are still trained to pull carts, said Janet Houck of Lyons, who breeds the horse. Most of the little horses are strong enough that they can pull up to two humans in a specially made cart over a paved pathway, Janet said.
August 04, 2010 | 08:45 AM
Lyons Township — For Janet and Dick Houck, the miniature horses they raise and sell from their town of Lyons farm are more than just a living, they are their life.

Indeed, Janet and Dick might not have met if not for a miniature horse. Dick, then veterinarian for the Ringling Bros & Barnum Bailey Circus, was charged with finding the circus a miniature horse. Dick bought the horse from Janet. Their meeting proved fortuitous. They married 18 years ago.

A native Floridian, Janet said she was tired of the year-round hot weather, and actually enjoys Wisconsin's cold season.

Now the Houcks preside over Houck's Miniature Horse Farm, a 500-acre spread straddling Brook Road, just north and east of Springfield, where they raise more than 50 miniature horses (including six stallions) and three full-sized horses. Houcks' miniatures are nationally known show horses and champions. Recently, the Houcks and their miniatures were featured on the cable network RFD-TV show "Clinton Anderson's Down Under Horsemanship," Janet said.

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The farm is a little too big for just two to handle. Hired hand Jose De La Rosa and his family also help maintain the farm and keep the operation going.

In addition to their horses, the Houcks also own two Anatolian Shepherds, large, Labrador-like dogs, 34 inches at the shoulder. Cossack and Ankara, are imposing, powerful-looking canines.

But as far as they're concerned, the Houcks, the horses, and even a friendly barn cat are all just part of one big, extended family.

When Cossack and a miniature stallion named Royal are brought together for a comparison photo, they rub noses and then back off for the camera, as if they know the drill.

Janet, who bred full-sized horses in Florida, came across the smaller breed in 1978, when a friend asked her to temporarily board a miniature stallion named Bucky. Bucky was to star in an art gallery's advertising campaign.

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At the time, Janet owned about 3.5 acres and was breeding full-sized quarterhorses. Bucky became part of the family, drinking from the backyard pool, playing with the family dog and sneaking into the house from time to time.

In the end, Janet wound up owning Bucky. Janet bought him a companion, a miniature, gray dapple mare. Soon, Janet also owned a foal, born to Bucky and his mare. She found herself hooked on the little horses.

The Houcks are members of the American Miniature Horse Association. Established in 1978, the AMHA says a mature miniature horse must not measure more than 34 inches at the withers, which is where the horse's mane ends, roughly at the shoulder.

Any breed of horse can produce miniatures, Janet said. Even the huge draft breeds have their miniature counterparts. Despite their small size, the miniatures are hardy, often living to 34 years, Janet said.

Miniature horses vary in weight from 120 pounds, for a 25-inch stallion, to 300 pounds for a brood mare, Janet said. A full-sized horse can be up to six feet at the shoulder and weigh 1,200 pounds.

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"They melt your heart," Janet said of the pint-sized ponies. "They have personalities all their own."

Full-sized horses are just too big to be considered as pets, Janet said.

Because of their size, the larger horses are sometimes regarded as just beasts of burden and put on the same level as cattle. But miniature horses show real affection for their human companions and they love to be hugged and cuddled, something that's difficult to do with full-sized horses, Janet said.

"It gives a whole new perspective on horses," Janet said.

So it does. While standing in a herd of small-sized mares, many of them push close to their human visitors, waiting to get their ears stroked, muzzles rubbed and butts patted.

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For Dick Houck, caring for animals has been his profession since 1960, when he opened a veterinarian clinic in Lake Geneva. In 1963, he moved his practice to Lyons, where he partnered with Marvin Rydberg, who still practices in the town of Lyons, he said.

In 1984, Dick was invited to be veterinarian for Ringling Bros. & Barnum Bailey Circus. There he treated everything from elephants to poodles, and miniature horses.

Dick retired from the circus in 2003. But he didn't retire from miniature horses.

Janet's ability to breed the right stallions with the right mares to produce strong, healthy miniatures is amazing, Dick said. Many of the miniatures she's bred earn top dollar from breeders and trainers across the country and overseas.

According to Janet, miniature horses can sell for as much as full-sized horses.A miniature gelding bought just for companionship might sell for $900, while top show and breeding horses might sell for as much as $15,000 each, she said.

Janet said she's sold to customers in Israel, Europe and North America. One of her customers was Eleanor Mondale, daughter of the former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

Two of her horses, geldings, are being donated to the U.S. Air Force Academy as therapy animals for veterans who return from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

The Houck farm is well equipped for its sub-sized equine tenants. A former dairy barn now serves as a place for the horses to feed when it's too cold outside. It's also where prospective mothers are ultra-sounded to determine their availability to breed.

Welcoming new generations of miniatures is taken very seriously by the Houcks. They ultra-sound prospective mothers to make sure they're ready to give birth, and the Houcks' foaling barn is equipped with infrared cameras, so Janet can keep an eye on the expectant mothers in light and dark.

She said she wants to be by the mare's side when its foaling.

Weighing only about 18 pounds, she said the foal can lay in her arms, suck on her finger and fall asleep with its head on her shoulder.

For anyone interested in miniature horses, Houcks' Miniature Horse Farm can be reached at (262) 763-2764.

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