Maddy Morrison and Glory Hallelujah participate in the Mini Extravaganza at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Credit: Shirley Nolt.
Small horses gave a big performance at this year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show. The Miniature Horse Extravaganza, presented by the Capitol Area Therapeutic Riding Association (CATRA) showed audiences that very small equines can be great fun, and great therapy for the people working with them.
CATRA’s Miniature Horse Extravaganza at the Farm Show’s Equine Showcase and Penn State Ag Progress Days began five years ago as an outgrowth of the work the organization had been doing with miniatures.
For 33 years, CATRA, based in Grantville, PA, has been providing services to riders of all ages and abilities to improve their lives physically, mentally, and emotionally through interaction with horses.
“For years we always had a couple of miniatures to use as orientation, where we would introduce people to horses by bringing out a mini for handling and grooming,” CATRA Director Ben Nolt said. “They became more and more vital to what we are doing because of their temperament and size. The little kids would get involved with them learning how to lead a horse, how to brush them, and pick up their feet, and things like that.”
The miniature horses were working so well for CATRA that their part in the therapeutic riding program grew. “As time evolved, we realized an opportunity to use the minis strongly in the program,” Nolt said. “The life skills that people are learning from the minis became more and more important.”
In addition to using the miniatures to teach participants the basics of handling horses, youth and adults also learn a variety of life skills. They can help participants develop problem solving skills and decision making skills, learn to work as a team, communicate more clearly, develop leadership skills, and learn to trust themselves and others. Working with the miniatures, participants can discover their strengths, learn to handle frustration and anger, focus on goals, and build self-esteem. They learn to enforce boundaries as they work with the horses and very importantly, learn to always be thinking.
For CATRA participants, the success they feel working with horses expands when they become part of the Mini Extravaganza presentations.
“We teach them what goes on when you take the horses to a show and they have the opportunity to participate, and be in front of a crowd. All the organization skills that they were learning from handling the minis came to fruition in that,” Nolt said.
The show begins with miniature horses driven in harness. “We’re showing that the minis can be used by an adult and you can enjoy them that way,” Nolt said. “It’s a really neat opportunity for our participants to perform in front of a crowd and show off what they’ve learned, and it’s great to introduce people to miniature horses and show people what they can do.”
The driving is followed by a group of six miniature horses in hand. There is also a group called The Littles with very young handlers ages 4 through 9 leading the horses. The minis demonstrate their obedience and trust in their handlers by working through a challenging obstacle course, and conclude with jumping in hand.
“We try to add something new every year. This year, we’re bringing four miniature horses in to do a ground driving drill,” Nolt said prior to the show. “We added a special wrinkle – we’re driving one of the minis in fishing line, so to the audience it will look like she has nothing attached. It should be pretty much fun.”
In the five years of the Extravaganza, the program has used as many as 22 miniature horses, with 15 in the presentation at the Farm Show this year. The teams do all travel preparations and on-site set up and daily care as well as perform and interact with spectators. “It’s quite an entertaining show. The crowd really loves it,” Nolt said.
Beyond the performances, the preparation time put in by the participants work toward their goals. “In the springtime, we open up the program to anyone who wants to participate here at CATRA. We work for five or six weeks, and that culminates in a little horse show here. That gives a chance for anyone who might have an interest, but doesn’t want to commit to a performance team,” Nolt explained.
Having a chance to compete is important to some CATRA participants. “This past year, there was a young man whose disability on an average day would make life pretty rough on him, but he latched onto one of the minis and they kind of liked each other. ln the end, he won the championship at the horse show. It was a boost for him emotionally. He’d never won anything like that, especially in a sports type activity,” Nolt said.
Those with an interest to continue after the show become part of the Miniature Horse Extravaganza. “It’s taken a lot of practice, a lot of time, working to develop the team concept. Everybody’s in it to help everybody else - continually solving problems, all the ins and outs of working with the minis, learning how to communicate with each other, and how to communicate with the horses of course,” Nolt said. “The leaders come up through the ranks. Some of the folks realize they can do more than they thought they could.”
Along with the miniature horse program, CATRA offers non-riding opportunities in the Paws and Read program. “We put small animals on a table top and read to them. We kick it up a notch. We take a chair out to the paddock where the kids will read to the horses or the ponies, or we have a pig they read to,” Nolt said. “A lot of people are afraid to stand up to a crowd, but the animals are not judgmental.”
Looking forward, Nolt would like to expand the miniatures’ performance opportunities. They are available as educational entertainment for events and other affairs. They also offer small clinics and workshops and are available to help those who are looking for help with their miniature horses.
CATRA is an all-volunteer organization with no paid staff. CATRA is always looking for additional volunteers of all ages as well as financial contributions and sponsorships. The 2017-18 sponsor for the Extravaganza is Arrowhead Animal Health.