Sandy Croote: Minis are Horses too

Sandy Croote, whose Miniature Horses have made it to the breed's Hall of Fame, explains how you can apply mini training to your full-size horse.

They may look small, but Miniature Horses have the same heart and desire as any full-size model. They can stand proudly in a halter class, pull carts, perform at liberty and even go over fences, only without a rider.

Sandy Croote fell in love with a “mini” when a local farmer had one for sale in 1996. A Technical Sergeant with the New York State Police in Albany, Sandy owns a 40-acre farm in nearby Esperance. Like many of us, she turns to horses as her relaxation away from the stress of daily life. Only in her case, her animals take up much less space.

But minis require the same patience in training as any other horse. Just because they’re small and we humans can literally push them around doesn’t mean we should, any more than we should force training upon our full-size horses.

Sandy found that John Lyons’ training methods help her tremendously. She has added those methods into her own program, which has included training and showing Hall of Fame and World Champion minis as well as taking the All-Star National Championship in showmanship herself.

Sandy, who has also ridden and shown hunter-jumpers, met John in 1999 at Equitana in Kentucky. She helped out around the barn, and John found her to be such a good hand that he invited her to help him any time she wanted. She took him up on that offer in 2000, using vacation time to volunteer at clinics and shows in 21 states over about 12 weeks.

“I learned so much as I watched different breeds, horses with different dispositions and various owner reactions each weekend,” Sandy said. “I saw firsthand that with consistency, every horse can benefit from John’s methods. It also strengthened my people skills, always a benefit in my line of work. Listening and communicating with people is so much like working with our horses.”

Perfect Horse asked Sandy about her mini training, especially in situations that could be applied to all horses.

PH: How do minis compare to full-size horses in handling?
Croote: Miniature horses, although small in size, are similar to large horses. They are eager and willing to learn.

I’ve been to several horse shows where a mini balks at loading on the trailer and the owner will grab it by the tail and lift or shove it onto the trailer. That works just so many times, and pretty soon you see that same mini at another horse show with two people locking arms behind him, pushing and shoving the little horse, who’s digging his feet in.

I try to treat my miniatures the same as I would a 1,000-pound big horse. Taking the time to teach an exercise such as leading or trailer loading leads to a great partnership.

John relates this to people on a dance floor. If I were being pushed or dragged around, I’d become frustrated and either get mad or just give up dancing. But given a partner who takes the time to teach me, I’d have fun and enjoy dancing. I may not catch on to everything immediately, so I may need to practice some moves more than others. But the finished product is great teamwork.

PH: You’ve had great success, particularly in showmanship. How do you teach your minis to stand well in these classes?
Croote: The best training method for teaching showmanship is John’s WESN lesson, a ground-handling lesson that teaches the horse to move forward, back, left or right with simple cues. Concentrate on which foot you want moved, where you want it moved to and then release when the horse gets it right.

I showed my first mini, Virginia, in halter classes. She tried her best to stand square and look pretty, but it was quite evident she was outclassed. The judge gently explained that while my broodmare had good conformation, she wasn’t really “show quality.” I took her home that night determined that even though she wasn’t a halter conformation horse, she could still be “show quality.” She went on to become an American Miniature Horse Registry Hall of Fame Obstacle Champion.

I personally bring a horse into lineup by placing the inside (left hind foot) where I want my horse set. I then ask the right hind foot to move. I keep my hand low at or about the point of the shoulder and put light pressure on the halter, much like positioning the head. The horse will move his right hind foot forward and back, left and right, picking it up until it eventually gets squarely next to the left hind. Release the horse when the foot is in proper position.

I work specifically on this one foot repetitively until the horse places the right foot correctly. I want the feet spaced squarely under the horse’s haunches, though hunters can stand offset with one hind foot slightly back farther than the other. Some horses catch on quickly, but I find time is the best teacher for this exercise.

Next I work on the front feet. I lift my hand slightly higher (about 3 to 5˝) than the point of the shoulder, and ask the left front foot to move. If it were a clock, picture the horse’s nose moving toward 1:00. By doing this, it slightly shifts the weight from the left shoulder, allowing the horse to move his left front foot. I walk the horse off, reset the hind feet (which is now a learned exercise), then reset the left front. I’ll do this several times.

Then I work the right front foot. My hand is elevated to the same height, but to fix the right front, I think of moving the nose toward 11:00 (slightly forward and to the left). Repeat this exercise and you’ll find setting your horse square is really easy.

PH: Most people think of hunter/jumper classes as horses being ridden over fences, but minis actually do this without a rider. What are your tips for getting a horse to jump an obstacle in hand?
Croote: These events might raise a few eyebrows initially, but minis love competing in these in-hand events. The course usually includes six to eight fences set from 24˝ to 32˝ high. Hunters are required to show style, manners and correct form, with preference given to an even pace. Jumping events are timed and mathematically scored based on faults. Penalties include knockdowns, refusals and circling – much like a full-size hunter class.

You can teach a horse to free jump to develop his rhythm and balance. Place one end of a few rails on the bottom rung of a round pen. This makes the elevation of the rail about 12″ at the high end and on the ground at the other. Work your horse in both directions. Asking for tight turns back and forth over the same rail will help teach your horse to rock back on his haunches, making him round his body and effectively use his head and neck over the top.

When you add the halter, be sure to release your lead line as your horse jumps to avoid catching him while he’s in the air. The easiest way to do this is to coil the line in your left hand and lead your horse with your right hand. If you extend your arm straight out, it will assist in getting your horse to the center of the jump. Where the nose goes, the rest of the horse follows.

When your horse leaves the ground, completely let go with your right hand. As the horse lands and you are continuing on to the next jump, your right hand can easily find the lead by reaching for the left-hand coil and sliding your hand along the lead back into place a few inches from the halter.

Just like showing ponies and horses, a mini is penalized for circling before a jump, so be sure to teach your horse to slow down without breaking, especially when turning him to the right (or else you’d better be able to run faster than your horse).

PH: How did you school your stallion to a cart for driving?
Croote: I started my stallion, Subras Starbuck (Shubert), in driving last year. I put Shubert into the round pen (modified to about 40 feet for the miniatures because it’s harder to keep minis moving in a 60-foot pen) and did some inside turns. As he made these turns, I used a consistent voice command to familiarize him with his direction of travel. Draft horse drivers usually prefer “gee” (to the right) and “haw” (to the left), but any command works fine as long as it’s used consistently.

Once I felt he had a good foundation with turns, I focused on the stop. Tommie Turvey, an excellent trick trainer, taught me that a horse should learn a distinct difference between “whoa” and “ho.” When I say “ho” in a demanding way, my horse should immediately cease whatever he is doing and stand. If I say “whooooaaaa” in a longer, soothing way, it helps my horse differentiate a request to slow his actions. (I use “whoa” to help regulate a speed that might be a bit quicker than I want, and to reassure my horse about an upcoming obstacle so that he can begin to slow down.)

Next is speed control. I started him traveling to the left and sent him forward. I kissed to him, used a cue word (mine is “step up”) and asked him to speed up. If he didn’t, I threw my rope behind him (or you can use a lunge whip) to give him some extra incentive. I try to avoid actually hitting him unless he’s really not moving forward. In this case, I aimed at his hip, which is where I will tap him when he’s actually harnessed up and driving. If he tried to change his direction, I stopped him and continued working him to the left.

Once he was traveling at an extended trot, I left him alone as long as he maintained the same speed. I’m not trying to tire my horse out. I’m trying to teach him to extend his trot. So I only had him maintain his speed once or twice around.

Then using the “whoa” he learned earlier, I slowed him down. I practiced speeding him up and slowing him down in both directions. I try to pay particular attention to the natural speed my horse uses before I speed him up or slow him down.

A bridle and surcingle becomes the next step in training, I started with an open-faced bridle, which allows the horse to see his surroundings. I did simple turns using verbal cues from both sides, then changed the reins to long-lines and fed them through the rings in the surcingle. (See John’s sacking-out process if your horse is not standing comfortable for the surcingle.)

I walked behind the horse and practiced simple turns and stops. To make it more fun for both Shubert and me, I used cones and rails to ground-drive through and around. This is also the time I worked to improve his give to the bit, teaching him to break at the poll.

I moved up to the trot and repeated practice turns and stops by picking various cones to start, stop and change pace. This is when I changed to the bridle with the blinders and the rest of the harness (having sacked my horse out long before I get to this stage). Adding the traces and/or back britching is not usually a problem.

I don’t use britching on my minis unless I’m working on the trails, where it gives the horse better leverage when backing up over rough terrain. I’m also told it’s helpful for a horse you are fearful will kick out because the britching limits the height a horse can kick when harnessed in the cart. This should not be an issue if you take your time training the horse.

At this point, I introduced Shubert to the cart. An easy way to get a horse used to a cart’s noise without actually hitching him up is to have someone pull the cart past you and the horse (so that the horse sees it), then alongside and then behind the horse. After that, I hitched Shubert to the cart, had him take a few steps and “ho.” I continued to ground-drive him as I walked behind the cart. The restriction of the shafts will limit how much the horse is able to flex or bend to the side, and I like to be able to move forward to the horse’s head and work directly from the bridle if needed.

The last step is to get into the cart and enjoy the drive.

PH: Can you show minis in trail classes?
Croote: Yes, this is a favorite activity for many owners of minis. It’s a great test to see where you’re lacking in training. Just a few of the obstacles include crossing water and bridges, sidepassing a rail, backing through a crooked dogleg and ground-tying. Minis perform these in a halter and lead rope.

Crossing any obstacle can be taught by leading your horse to the point where he’s comfortable. This is his safety zone, and I like to go back to it if my horse gets frustrated or nervous. I will lead a horse one or two steps closer to the “scary obstacle” and allow him to paw or sniff it if it’s within range, though you may not get that close in your first try.

I practice asking the horse to step one foot up onto or over the obstacle several times, then add the second foot, once I feel he’s comfortable. The horse gets lots of praise and loving at each stage of his training. If he steps off to the left or right, I continue working on his nose going straight over the obstacle. I have my horse walk up on anything I can find, as long as it’s safe.

An added challenge is to add a log under a piece of plywood so that it acts like a tilt bridge. Once the horse reaches the breakover point, the bridge tilts the other way. I try to teach horses to adjust their weight from backward to forward after they hit the middle of the board so that they can actually tilt the board slowly and not scare themselves. I do this by asking my horse to stand square on the board, and by raising or lowering his head (head-down cue) he can tilt the board.

Sidepassing is fun to teach, too. The sidepass can be performed over or in front of flower boxes, over rails of any size or thickness, or over any object the horse can straddle.

Start by asking the horse to move his hips over consistently, in response to your lead-rope cue. Then move the front foot closest to you away. This is the start of the crossover. Now you’re ready to try the sidepass as a two-part lesson.

Ask your horse to move his hips, then his front foot, then his hips and then the front foot. Your horse at first will zigzag back and forth over the rail, but with practice will improve. When the horse can comfortably move through the sidepass, I add rails and other objects.

Once horses understand the exercise, they begin to align themselves and anticipate the cue. This can be problematic if the horse should stop at a certain point in the test, so I work on a cue to get the horse to begin (I use the word “step” as I pick up on the lead), and go back to “ho” to stop the horse. Then I use the word “OK” to release the horse into the next exercise.

Back-throughs are often done between two rails, around cones or around crooked doglegs. When I teach a mini to back through something, I stand directly in front of him, whereas with full-sized horses I stay to their side. My reasoning is that I teach my horse to keep his nose straight and to move his hips to stay in line with me.

If the horse has to back through an L-shaped obstacle, I walk forward into the “L” and my horse backs up, staying straight in front of me. When I reach the bend in the “L,” I turn the corner and my horse moves his hips over to again get straight in front of me. To teach this, I work on moving the hips over each time I turn left or right. Repetitive practice gets the horse to stay in line with me with minimal pressure on the halter.

Next I teach the back. I say the word “back,” drop the horse’s head and apply light pressure. I release as soon as the horse shifts backward. I do this several times until I can say the word “back” and the horse moves continuously backward with little or no pressure until I say “ho.”

I add the hips next. I ask the horse to back, then as he’s moving, I step to the left and bring his hips into alignment. I do this several times in both directions. The exercise at this point is back, move the hips and back. Once my horse is doing this comfortably, I make it a smooth exercise so that the horse continues to move backward even as he is aligning his hips. Now I’m ready to add cones, rails or anything else I’d like my horse to back through.

In trail classes, we are often asked to ground-tie our horses (drop the lead and walk away or around the horse). To teach this exercise, I drop the lead, say “ho” and walk a few feet away. I’ve taught the horse “ho,” so this exercise is easy. I return to the horse, praise him, then do it again, each time getting a little further away. If my horse walks away or tries to leave, I put him back into the exact spot he moved from and continue the exercise. I don’t punish the bad behavior, just reinforce the good.

If I think my horse will wander, I stay close and do the exercise over and over until I feel I can move farther away without the horse moving. When I think my horse has learned the ground-tie, I add distractions like jumping up and down, running around the horse, picking up and dropping things and clapping or other noises. I may look goofy doing it, but my horse will be less inclined to move at the show where the activity level is higher than in my quiet little barn.

PH: How do you teach a mini to perform in a liberty class?
Croote: Liberty classes are very much like working in a round pen, a very big round pen. When the music starts, you remove the horse’s halter and the horse is expected to “show his stuff” to the music. A second person is allowed to help move the horse, but I usually choose to work them myself.

Music can be selected based on owner preference, but I like to find a selection that matches the horse. A perky horse with a very animated gait will look a bit odd trotting to a Celtic waltz, and a beautiful horse cantering with a long stride needs a three-beat rhythm to show off his grace and style.

A horse that races around the ring aimlessly may randomly show various gaits, but if you work your horse regularly in a round pen, he will be familiar with your subtle signals and be able to make turns that will show him off well in both directions and will appear choreographed to go with the music.

My show pony won the World Class Miniature Horse Registry World Championship to a perky upbeat song. I sent her off to the left, increased her speed at the trot, then when the music peaked, changed her gait to the canter. As the music slowed, she changed directions and I brought her back to the trot. I continued to change directions and work with speed controls to keep the movement lively, and to stay with the rhythm of the music. When the music stopped, I kissed to her and asked her hurry up and come to me at the extended trot. Add the halter, and all the round pen work paid itself off.

The important thing to remember is that when it comes to training, size really doesn’t matter. Consistency and a good partnership are the essentials. I’ve found that incorporating the John Lyons method works for all horses, whether large or small, because the goal is always the same – a perfect horse.