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Hot Shot, a newly born miniature horse on Keith and Sue Swanson's farm, has bright blue eyes. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Woman feels healing power of miniature horses

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The 23 miniature horses on Keith and Sue Swanson's ranch are docile, gentle creatures.

They don't snort, jump or rear their heads, unless a new mother feels her colt is being threatened.

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Mostly, they're a soothing presence on the farm northeast of Park Rapids.

"They were my antidepressants, my therapy," Sue said.

Sue's lifelong love of horses began as a kid. Her family owned a riding stable on Long Lake for many years.

She's always had horses, but she and Keith laugh at how they've "downsized" their herd.

Not in numbers, mind you, but in actual size. They keep four quarter horses for riding. Keith teaches roping to 4-H clubs.

They sold most of the big horses and started collecting Shetland ponies.

"These have better personalities," Sue said of the miniatures.

She goes to exotic sales throughout the region where she buys and sells the miniature horses, always looking to improve her bloodlines. She's even purchased a horse on Craig's List.

The Swansons take their miniatures to petting zoos, sell them as pets, bring them to parades and antique tractor shows and may start exhibiting them again at county fairs.

"Miniatures are more people friendly," Keith explains. "Shetlands can develop an attitude real quick. These are better around kids."

The Swansons say they don't have to worry about a miniature horse biting or kicking a child.

"They'll run right into the parade to pat them," Sue said of kids' fascination with the little animals.

"You train them the same as you would a dog," Keith said. "A little at a time. They get bored real quick."

Babies are around 20 pounds when they're born after the lengthy 340-day pregnancy period. Sue lifts them by the legs and snuggles their downy coats while watchful mares keep a close eye on her.

There was a time not too long ago when she couldn't lift them.

She came home from a trail ride in the fall of 2008 feeling bruised and sore. The diagnosis was an aggressive form of breast cancer and a yearlong round of chemotherapy and other treatments that left Sue sick, weak and discouraged.

Keith picked up the horse chores that had primarily been Sue's responsibility. She was bed ridden.

"She wanted a detailed report every night," Keith remembered.

Then came the day Sue was well enough to be the straw boss, making suggestions for moving the herd to various pastures and the care they required.

Her interest and her strength gradually came back and the herd began increasing in size.

"I accumulated a few more once I convinced myself I was gonna be OK," she said.

Two colts have been born this spring. Eight more mares are left to foal, the last in August.

"We're supposed to sell a few," Sue said.

Who's we?

She sheepishly explains that it's becoming harder and harder to part with the ponies.

"Her way of thinking is if it was born here it'll die here," Keith laughs.

But the healthy looking woman is testament to the fact that equine therapy is effective.

So, the more the better.

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