Gilles and Esther Labelle became acquainted with miniature horses about 15 years ago when they were en route to a rodeo in Saskatoon and decided to make a slight detour to attend an exotic animal sale at the local auction.
The couple never made it to the rodeo, but three miniature horses came home with them to their acreage near Grandora, Saskatchewan that evening.
The Labelles were already breeding, raising and training Morgan horses, selling them across Canada and the United States. They then began reading up on miniatures and started training them for ground driving. As the herd size increased, they were readily able to sell some of the minis, particularly those trained for agility and driving, and today their reputation for raising well-mannered and well-cared-for horses continues to grow.
“It starts with human contact the day they’re born,” says Esther. She keeps records of when the mares are bred, and as it gets close to their due date, she prepares a maternity ward in the barn complete with several cameras. Television monitors, connected to the cameras, are set up in a trailer nearby so she can keep an eye on the expectant mothers at night. “I can tell by their breathing when they’re going into labour. I’m a light sleeper, so I pick it up right away.”
Esther spends the first couple of hours bonding with the newborn foal and its mother. “With human contact and working with the animals, they develop that trust in you and do anything you want.”
The Labelles use the method of least resistance. This means that when training the horse, the handler is continually reading the animal and responding accordingly. “When you want them to do something, you make it easy; when you don’t want them to do something, you make it awkward. They want to please you,” Gilles says.
“Every horse has his or her own personality. One will take to training really quickly, another not so quick. You have to be consistent and persistent. If you tell the horse one day he can’t do this, but the next day you allow it and the day after that you punish him, the horse becomes totally confused.
“Also, if you tell the horse, ‘you’re going on the right-hand side of that pylon,’ stick with it, whether it takes five minutes or five hours, he’s got to go on the right-hand side. You have to be proactive; you can’t be reacting to the horse. They are very good at reading your body language,” Gilles says.
Miniature horses are hardy and adaptable. They are dewormed spring and fall, and immunized every spring for eastern and western swamp fever and tetanus. Gilles does the hoof trimming. He also builds much of his own equipment, such as eveners, poles, neck yokes, racks for the wagons, and runners for the sleighs.
The Labelles are members of the American Miniature Horse Registry and the American Miniature Horse Association. They take the horses to functions such as the Equine Expo and parades, but do not participate in horse shows. “We’re not in it for the competition. We want to be involved with them for the fun of it, and entertain people to also enjoy them,” says Esther.
The Labelles were instrumental in establishing the province’s first Fun Time Miniature Horse Club. The club, geared for children, has a membership of about 50, half of which are children.
“Working with horses is both relaxing and satisfying. When I was still working off the farm, I’d come home after a bad day, and the horses just totally changed my outlook. They never talk back or get angry with you,” says Esther.