A horse is a horse ...

Ruby Kirk’s Opal Woods Farm specializes in miniature horses, which many people purchase as pets

August 31, 2017
Image description
Bob Niedbala
Image description
Bob Niedbala
Image description
Bob Niedbala
Image description
Bob Niedbala

Surrounded by a half dozen horses, after having called them in from pasture, Ruby Kirk obviously doesn’t have to worry about getting crushed or trampled by an errant hoof – that’s because all the horses on Kirk’s 43-acre farm near Carmichaels are miniatures.

Kirk breeds miniature horses, which stand no taller than about three feet, measured from the ground to the withers, a point at about the last hairs on the horse’s mane.

She breeds the animals for people who want them as pets, who train them for show or use them to pull carts or wagons. She also breeds them to become therapy animals, a use that is becoming more prevalent because of the miniatures’ ability to be easily trained and their calm and gentle natures. “When you walk through the field, you’ll see what they’re like. They’ll come right up to you and say ‘Hi,’ ” Kirk says. “They actually have a personality like a dog as opposed to a horse.”

Her horses certainly are not threatening to a visitor who entered the pasture with Kirk one day in early August. All the horses seemed to want was to be petted and given a little attention.

“They are very personable, very smart; they are very bonded to humans, very inquisitive,” Kirk says. “And every horse has a personality; they are not all the same.”

Kirk grew up on a farm in western Greene County and she loves farm life. She had a pet horse as a child, but got way from farm living when she went away to college and then began a career in retail management. She started breeding miniatures as a hobby about 12 years ago when she first moved to the farm, which she later named Opal Woods Farm in honor of the first miniature born there. The birth was in a wooded area and the horse was the color of a white opal.

About 10 years ago, Kirk was looking for a way to bring in some additional income to help maintain the farm when she realized she could make breeding a business.

“I needed something to help sustain the farm and help add supplemental income, and I knew I wasn’t going to grow corn or put up hay or buy any extra equipment. Basically, I realized I could use these little guys to help make my farm useful,” she says.

Macaque in the trees
Bob Niedbala

Kirk breeds only miniature Appaloosa horses, which are known for the spotted pattern of their coat. All of her horses are registered through one or both of the two miniature horse registries: the American Miniature Horse Association and American Miniature Horse Registry.

Breeding Appaloosas wasn’t as easy as she first thought it would be. In fact, it took quite a bit of time, research and “trial and error” to perfect her horses, she says.

“You can’t just breed Appaloosa and expect to get spots,” Kirk says. “I didn’t know that in the beginning, so I was breeding Appaloosas, but they looked like little black or brown horses with no spots.” The secret, she soon learned, was in the use of information from genetic testing.

Kirk has about 44 miniatures on her farm, including three stallions and 17 babies, or foals. She sees each of her horses pretty much every day. She also rotates her horses among three pastures, one of which is her front yard. “Throughout the year, every one of them gets handled pretty extensively; you’ll see when you walk through the fields, they’ll come right up to you.”

Miniatures can be raised in a back yard, provided the back yard is big enough. “As long as they are well taken care of and fed and as long as they get lots of attention, they really aren’t too concerned about having great big fields,” Kirk says.

Many of her miniatures are purchased by people who always owned regular horses but who, for one reason or another, feel they can’t keep them anymore. “It’s older folks who don’t ride any longer because they are afraid they will fall and break a bone. It’s people who don’t want the upkeep and the expense of having a horse, but still want a horse in their lives.”

With a miniature, a person can have a horse that is much easier to keep and maintain than a full-sized horse, “at a fraction of the cost,” Kirk notes.

She also sells miniatures to people who train them for show and to those who prepare them to become therapy animals. She doesn’t train the horses herself; she leaved that to the buyers.

Three horses born on Kirk’s farm are now being used as therapy horses and a fourth, a baby still at the farm, has been purchased for therapy work.

Macaque in the trees
Bob Niedbala

Therapy horses are trained to assist people with physical or emotional issues, who may be suffering from stress, trauma or simply from loneliness. The horses work in retirement and nursing homes, schools, hospitals or in a person’s home.

Kirk says the horses are highly trained. They have to learn how to act in what to them are unusual circumstances. They may have to ride in an elevator or learn not to react when, say, people are running up and down the hallway. They also have to remain calm when someone might want to give them a big hug.

“They can do these things because they are very smart and learn very quickly and they don’t react as a large horse does,” she says. They have another characteristic that helps – a gentleness that people can connect with.

One horse from Kirk’s farm was purchased by a veteran who had been wounded in Afghanistan and was having trouble connecting with people. He takes the horse out in public and people always come up to him to ask about the horse. “Little by little, it allowed him to reconnect and to re-establish communications with others,” she says. “It helped him tremendously. It’s amazing how fast this aspect of utilizing miniature horses has grown.”

Kirk has found she can breed miniatures while continuing to work her full-time job. Her horses live and feed in the pastures and are given hay in the winter, and she can run the operations with only a little extra outside help.

And, of course, breeding miniatures perfectly aligns with her interests. “It’s not really a job,” she says. “It’s one of those things you have a passion for.”

Kirk sells between 15 and 20 foals each year all over the country mainly through her website. While she has sold horses locally, Kirk says she doesn’t believe most people in the area are aware of what she does.

To Kirk, breeding miniatures has been a worthwhile endeavor. It has allowed her to continue to work with horses, which she loves, and to keep her farm, which is very important to her.

“Once you grow up in the country, it’s really part of who you are,” she says. “I remember loving animals and loving the countryside; it’s the first thing I remember as a child. I’ve gone on to live in all kinds of places with my career, but some people just have it in their blood to be a rural person.”

For more information, visit www.opalwoodsfarm.com.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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