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Small horses, big hearts

STIRLING, Alta. — Bill Bier cannot recall ever attending a horse sale when he didn’t buy at least one horse.

A miniature horse, of course.

He once went to a sale with little buying intention and came home to the acreage near Stirling, Alta, with 15 of the short-statured equines.

His wife, Joanmarie, takes it in stride. It will be her job to help work with the horses, breaking and training them if necessary and involving them in a breeding program if that’s what the couple decides.

Bill and Joanmarie operate Half Diamond 4B Acres. They buy, sell, breed and race miniature horses.

They have about 30 horses now and have had as many as 50, but the animals come and go as sales are made.

“We sell a lot. People like them for pets because they’re so friendly. They want to look after people and they like people. The more attention you give them, the happier they are,” says Bill.

Some animals are sold as pets, some for showing and some for mini-chuck wagon racing, a sport for which Bill and other family members are well known.

He and Joanmarie travel to numerous events throughout the summer from Armstrong, B.C., to Toronto and from Montana to points north of Edmonton.

Bill races, as does daughter and son-in-law Stephanie and Matt Rilkoff and daughter-in-law Charlene Bier. Their two grandchildren are also already showing an interest.

Tyson Bier, 7, sits with his grandfather on the wagon before and after races. Isabelle Rilkoff, 2, has been among the horses on the Biers’ 15-acre farm.

“Our granddaughter, she’s going to be a horse person,” says Bill.

Joanmarie attends many racing events, but her main interest is providing the stock with the personal touch.

“I don’t race. I’m a helper. My part on our farm is I look after the breeding program, the mares and the stallions and the imprinting of the foals. Also the halter breaking and that type of thing.”

Her work was curtailed this year by foot surgery but when this year’s crop of foals is weaned after the summer rodeo and fair season, she expects to work on halter breaking and socialization of the young horses.

Foaling time in May is her favourite time.

“The fun part is carrying the newborns into the barn. That’s the best part. They just get used to humans and they’re friendly,” says Joanmarie.

Bill emphasizes that miniature horses are a breed of their own, and as the name implies, are smaller versions of the horses with which most people are familiar. They are not ponies, which are another category of equine.

Miniature horses are a registered breed. One category covers animals 34 to 36 inches and another is for horses 36 to 38 inches. Either way, the horses are small but mighty.

Bill and Joanmarie have raised other livestock and once travelled the rodeo, gymkhana and roping circuits. About 16 years ago, they saw miniatures at a rodeo in Strathmore, Alta., and decided on a new path.

Both are retired, Bill from an automotives business and Joanmarie as a retail store supervisor, so profits from horse sales and winnings in chuck wagon races aren’t their primary motivation.

“At the end of the year, we’ve got everything paid for. All our expenses are covered,” says Bill. “You end up doing something you like and it’s not costing you anything to do it.”

Not every miniature horse is suitable for racing. Some are better for the show circuit or for wagon hitch.

The Biers like to observe their horses in the field to see how they socialize and behave.

“They’ll tell you who they want to run with. We try and work with nature,” says Bill. “We give them a life and once they learn how to run, then they get the fever. They love doing it. They might be 36 inches tall, but if you ask them and they could tell you, they’re a Thoroughbred. They’re standing seven feet and they can go wherever they want.”

But mini-chuck wagon racing is more about the show than the competition, he adds. There is a community of owners and racers who travel the summer circuit to the delight of many different crowds.

That can take Bill away from the acreage for many weeks throughout the summer, leaving Joanmarie to tend the animals. That is why she says it’s important that all their horses be gentle and easy to manage.

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