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Ask the Vet, Sallie S. Hyman VMD, DACVIM: Mini Horse Health

Miniature Horse Health


They’re little, they’re cute, but remember, they’re horses. They might fit into the back of the Suburban or even in the living room, but Miniature Horses need to be cared for like a horse. And now that we agree that these little guys are horses and even though Miniature Horses might seem just like their larger counterparts in, well, miniature, there are some differences. In addition to all of needs and medical issues that all horses face, Minis have a number of issues that are more common in that breed. Anyone thinking about getting a Mini should carefully read about their special needs and make sure that they are equipped to handle them.  


There are several serious medical conditions that are common in Miniature Horses.



Angular Limb Deformities—There are defined as a deviation from the normal axis of a limb as viewed from the front or behind. Minis are often born with severely crooked legs. This can cause trouble walking, abnormal hoof wear, and discomfort. Surgery can correct some of these deformities. 


Upward Fixation of the Patella—In this condition, the patella of the stifle gets hung up on the medial (inside) trochlea of the femur and causes the stifle to become “locked” in extension. You might recognize this as a horse with a stiff, outstretched leg. Usually they can eventually “unlock” the patella by backing up. Upward fixation of the patellar can occur due to weakness in the muscles that support the patella, a too long medial patellar ligament, or straight hind limb conformation. In some extreme cases both hind limbs are affected and the Mini will stand parked out and unable to move forward. In such extreme cases, blistering of the medial patellar ligament, splitting of the medial patellar ligament, or even cutting that ligament may be necessary to correct the problem.


Luxated Patella—Miniature Horses are prone to lateral luxation of the patella. This can result in a similar stance to a upward fixated patella or may result in-long term lameness. The patella luxates laterally (to the outside of the leg) due to congenital abnormalities of the stifle region including a shallower than normal femoral groove (where the patella slide) and a hypoplastic (smaller than normal) or deviated tibial crest. Surgery is necessary to reposition the tibial crest and to deepen the femoral groove.



Malerupted teeth. Minis commonly do not lose their deciduous (baby) teeth. This makes eruption of the permanent teeth difficult and can result in overcrowding of the teeth. The deciduous teeth often need to be pulled.


Overbite/Underbite. Deformities of the jaw are a common and serious problem. In brachygnathism, also referred to as an overshot mouth, or parrot mouth, the upper incisors hang over the lower incisors. In prognathism, also referred to as an undershot mouth, monkey mouth, or sow mouth, the lower incisors are in front of the upper incisors. Both conditions require frequent and proper dental care to keep the Mini’s bite correct. In severe cases, these conditions can prevent a Mini from prehending food.



Sinusitis. The roots of the molars in the horse are located in the sinuses of the skull. When there is overcrowding of the teeth in the mouth, there is corresponding overcrowding of the tooth roots in the sinuses. This can prevent normal drainage of the sinuses and allow trapped bacteria to multiply and cause a sinus infection.



Fecaliths. Fecaliths are firm rock-like impactions of manure due to poor mastication of food, poor quality feed that cannot be properly digested, or eating foreign materials such as baling twine, lead ropes, blankets, or tails. Fecaliths are commonly found in the small colon. Occasionally they can be encouraged to pass with fluids and mineral oil, but surgical removal is necessary in most cases.


Enteroliths. Enteroliths are firm rock like masses that form from minerals in the diet that from around some nidus, such as a swallowed rock, nail, or other foreign material. Enteroliths can be found in almost any portion of the intestine, but tend to get stuck where the lumen size decreases. The same treatments as for fecaliths apply to enteroliths.


Sand colic. Due to their greedy nature, Miniature Horses will scavenge every last piece of food off the ground. In the process, they will ingest a lot of sand if that is what is on the ground. If you keep you Mini in a geographic location where there is sand, test their manure frequently to see if they have accumulated sand and give them a sand preventative supplement, such as psyllium.


Minis often do not exhibit the classic signs of colic. If your Mini goes off feed, lies down more than normal or is depressed, contact your veterinarian. Any Mini that is off feed for more than 24 hours is at risk for hyperlipidemia.



Hyperlipidemia/Hepatic lipidosis. This is the most serious and most fatal disease of Miniature Horses. Pony breed, donkeys, and Minis are very susceptible to hyperlipidemia/hepatic lipidosis. These breeds store fat easily. If they go off feed for some reason or have stress place on them such as pregnancy, lactation, other diseases, their bodies will start to mobilize fat for energy. The liver processes the fat into energy. This is a very inefficient system and much of the fat ends up being deposited in the liver. This causes swelling of the liver and reduction in normal liver function. Eventually the liver will fail and death can result. Any Mini that is off feed for 24 hours is at risk for hyperlipidemia. Signs of hyperlipidemia/hepatic lipidosis include anorexia, fever, colic, diarrhea, jaundice, head pressing, circling, and death. Contact you veterinarian immediately if your Mini stops eating for more than 12 hours. The mortality rate runs between 60-100%, so swift intervention and treatment is necessary.


Obesity. Miniature horses have evolved to be very efficient at utilizing minimal amounts of calories. It is imperative that you do not overfeed your Mini. Most do not require any grain. Hay should be available at a rate of 1.5-2% of body weight. Grazing should be minimized and taken into account when calculating the amount of hay given. Speak with your veterinarian to formulate a proper feeding program for your Mini.



Abortions. Minis are prone to later term abortions (around 6 months). These are usually due to a malformed fetus.


Dystocia. Due to the discrepancy between the maternal pelvic size and the fetal head size and limb deformities, dystocia (difficult birth) is common in the Miniature Horse. Once a mare’s water has broken, the foal should be delivered within 30 minutes. If the process takes any longer than that, veterinary assistance is vital and a caesarian section may be necessary.



Dwarfism. Miniature Horses are meant to be small, but they are not dwarfs. Dwarfism is a genetic condition. Many forms of dwarfism exist. The two most commonly found types in Minis are achondroplasia (short limbs) and diastrophia (twisted limbs). Achondroplastic dwarfs can usually ambulate well and live fairly normal lives. Diastropic dwarfs have multiple limb deformities, domed heads, roached backs and generally need a great deal of support, including splints or surgery in order to ambulate properly.


Anterior Segment Dysgenesis.  ASD is a condition of the eyes in which certain parts of the eye such as the cornea, iris, lens, ciliary body, and retina do not develop normally. One of the most common and apparent abnormalities is an enlargement of the cornea that gives the eyes a “bugged-out” look. Horses with ASD are at increased risk for vision loss. The condition was been associated with the gene for the “Silver-Dapple” color.


Owning Miniature Horses can be a fun and enjoyable venture as long as you are armed with the information you need to be prepared for and to care for their special needs. 


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