Famous for beautiful women, IKEA and the Spotify music service, Sweden is reveling in its latest pop culture star. He goes by Vinnie the Dreamer. Standing just 30 inches tall, the handsome chestnut miniature horse with a blonde mane and tail is starring in a wildly popular series of television ads for the ATG Swedish gaming company that returns profits to the equine industry. Young or old, few can resist the charm of the miniature horse.
"He's all the rage in Sweden," says Johnny Dent, who bred the 6-year old "mini" at his Dent Family Miniature Horse Ranch in west Vero Beach. "He narrates the TV spots. I'm told he learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer tapped his rear hoof. Some people actually think he can talk like Mister Ed. When they take him to the racetrack each week, he needs a bodyguard. He's a rock star over there."
The pint-size horses tend to be very willing, sociable, and extremely smart with big-size personalities. Not ponies, they have long slim legs in the same proportions as a regular-sized horse – just smaller. Too little to ride, minis work eagerly when hitched to a cart where they can pull four times their own weight.
Miniature horses are bred for superb conformation and outstanding dispositions. The result is a beautifully proportionate tiny equine that is suitable to a variety of uses: as pets, show animals, and a form of therapy for disabled people and even guides for the blind. In the show ring, minis compete in halter and conformation contests and in performance events from obstacle driving and jumping to chuckwagon racing and equine agility trials. Minis can hit speeds of 25 mph, turn on a dime.
According to the American Miniature Horse Association (AMHA) the animal can't exceed 34 inches in height measured from the last hairs of the mane to the ground when standing squarely on level ground. The smallest of the breed are considered more desirable. Weighing between 150 and 250 pounds, minis are well-muscled, balanced, and proportioned, with a streamlined appearance.
They come in a rainbow of colors and every coat pattern and markings imaginable. Among the dazzling colors are buckskin, chestnut, palomino, sorrel, pinto, cremello, perlino and champagne. At miniature horse shows, top awards are earned for the most colorful horses.
The Dent family has a long history of working with horses. Johnny's mother Naomi, better known as Sparky, started trick riding in rodeos in 1946. She was invited to perform in Cuba in 1951, to showcase her riding skills and for the next three decades performed all across the United States. In 1952 she met and married Chuck Dent while on the rodeo circuit.
As a youngster Chuck Dent worked with his father on a small horse farm in Missouri. In 1947 he relocated to Ruidoso, New Mexico where he competed first at ranch rodeos and later in professional ones. During the winter months Dent often traveled to rodeos throughout Florida. In 1952 he was hired to build the first Indian River Riding Club and later that year bought property in West Vero Beach where the Dent Family Miniature Horse Ranch was born. By the mid 1950s the herd had grown to 100 broodmares and during its hey-day in the 1980s more than 200 miniature horses roamed the pastures.
These days at the Dent Ranch, spindly-legged foals dot the early spring landscape, a scrubland habitat with canopies of live oaks and palm trees. Scampering at their mothers’ sides across the enclosed pasture, strength grows in their fragile bones.
Over the years the ranch has sold minis across the U. S. and in more than two dozen countries. It counts five active stallions and 40 mares that are expected to produce 25 babies in 2018. Lucky Me is the top stud, servicing 21 mares last year. A newborn miniature horse weighs from 12 to 25 pounds and stands 15 to 22 inches tall. The mares typically give birth from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. From a reclining chair, Dent keeps tabs on his pregnant mares in the pasture via a large picture window in his home, ready to respond when they need him. A series of lights strung on the pasture fence illuminate the scene at night.
Tall and rangy with a thatch of grey hair, Dent excelled at calf-roping in college rodeos while attending Sheridan College in northern Wyoming.
"We focus mainly on pintos and some of the stock we now have can be traced back to the horses we had in the 1950s," says Dent, 59. "Our foaling season starts around the end of January or first of February until the middle of May. My wife Jackie and I stay up mostly all night for roughly 100 nights. It is very important to be at the foaling process with miniature horses. The majority of mares deliver without any problem, however just a minor problem can be the difference between a live foal and a dead foal."
The Dents have several extra large enclosures constructed in the middle of the foaling barn. Bales of hay are stacked nearby, while a batch of pastel halters and lead-lines hang from several wooden pegs. Not your typical large horse tack.
"The majority of foals lost are ones not being able to get out of the (birth) sack as they are not strong enough to break the sack without the mare standing up. Having helped foal close to 2000 foals over the years, the time and lack of sleep is worth the outcome.
"It takes a few days before the foal can see well enough to know what is what. They go mostly by sound. When the minis are ten days old, we put a halter on them and lead them with their mothers for turnout (pasture) and then back to the barn. At the 30-day mark, they have the strength and stamina to be turned back out with the breeding stallion and other mares and foals."
Joy Keplar along with her daughter Larkyn Rogers visited Dent's ranch last summer and took a shine to one of the smaller foals. A handsome chestnut, Mr. Darcy now stands 27 inches tall and weighs just 110 pounds. Today, he's happily stabled in a brightly colored dollhouse in their west Vero fenced backyard.
"Mr. Darcy is very loving and smart," Joy says. "He figures things out. He's always thinking. If he's hungry he'll come into the house and pry open a large tin of dog food. He likes to watch TV and play with our German Shepherd. Larkyn is training him to jump obstacles out back. He loves to get dressed up in his costumes-- a unicorn, alligator, a taco and hot dog. Mr. Darcy has attitude and presence. He thinks he's a big horse, just living in a small horse's body."
Dent dedicates much of the ranch's 20 acres to pastures for the extraordinary equine breed.
"I was so impressed when I first came to the ranch," Joy relates. "While Johnny and I sat cross-legged in one of the pastures, the minis came over to nuzzle and tumble all over him. He's this big strapping guy but you see how much he loves the minis and how proud he is of continuing his family tradition. It was a remarkable experience. His ranch is like being in a different world."
Experts say the earliest miniature horses were bred as novelties for royalty in the 1600s. The breed also spent time working in the mines in Britain and Wales because of their size. They were imported to the United States in the 1800s to work in the coal mines of Appalachia. Curiosity animals, miniature horses appeared in circuses where their reputation as performers grew. American breeders took an interest in them and began selective breeding practices to produce a miniature with perfect proportions to the larger equines.
The AMHA estimates that there are more than 100,000 miniature horses in the United States. The ideal miniature horse should have a head in proportion to the body and neck and a broad forehead and eyes set far apart providing excellent vision. Medium sized ears should be pointed with a long, flexible neck.
Maria Hughes came across her pair of minis while poring over Dent's website. Daisy and Bella tugged on her heartstrings. The owner of Diamond Chocolatiers in Norwalk, Conn., Hughes purchased the five month old minis in June 2017, built a barn and fenced her 1 1/2 acre property.
"They had no names, no training and boy, were they wild the first few weeks," Hughes recalls with a laugh. "I had help initially by two local women who trained full-sized horses. I tried to work with the minis every day. You start out with simple commands like 'walk on' and 'whoa' to stop. After each session I always ended on a positive note, praising them."
With a friendly nature yet also spirited, minis respond to training amazingly fast and well. Training is built around repetition, consistency and patience. They learn your body language and pick up on your tone of voice.
"Once they were trained a bit, I would walk them down the street which caused quite a stir," Hughes says. "Cars would pull over, kids would want to jump out and pet them. Daisy and Bella ate it up. They're real crowd pleasers."
The girls have become business mascots and models for Hughes' chocolate business often appearing in photo shoots in the kitchen where her scrumptious chocolates are created.
"We hang chocolate bars around their necks, put them in chef hats and white aprons and they get busy playing with empty bowls and spoons," Hughes relates. "They love it. The more attention the better. They have very different personalities. Bella really enjoys getting dressed up, while Daisy is the athlete. She can jump 2 1/2 feet over a series of jumps. She loves the challenge. I can get very animated when she's jumping."
With temperaments more like horses rather than ponies, miniature horses are born with a high level of curiosity and intelligence.
"You need to treat them like a big horse, but you just do everything on a small scale in comparison," Dent explains. "Most everything in dealing with a horse is done on a weight scale. Handling minis every day, you can just about train them to do whatever you want."
The minis' compact size makes them ideal for therapeutic training. They are frequently introduced to people in stressful jobs or situations. At the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, miniature horses comfort airline passengers bumped from flights, lost luggage or are fighting the anxiety of uneasy flyers. With a lifespan of around 30 years, minis can easily out live several therapy dogs.
With three former military members in Hughes' immediate family, she wanted to say thanks and brighten the days of our country's heroes. She and her irrepressible minis regularly make trips to veteran hospitals and VA events, dispensing bars of chocolates and putting smiles on the faces of veterans.
"It's a small step, but I wanted to help veterans rather than just talk about it," Hughes observes. " Just by being in the veteran's presence, Bella and Daisy are healing hearts with a calming, emotional and spiritual connection."
Hughes' minis started out visiting folks at local rehab centers, getting used to the loudness and range of ages, then moved to the veterans. One of the biggest challenges was acclimating to all the wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes.
"At first, the veterans had the attitude of 'are you kidding me,'" recalls Hughes. "The connection would start to build when grooming Bella and Daisy. You could see the vets' transformation before your eyes. It is truly magical."
Photo of Vinnie courtesy of Equifusion
Photo of Bella and Daisy courtesy of Diamond Chocolatiers