byCatie Staszak| Sep 14, 2017
Four hooves, 30 inches. Of the 6.3 million ordered to evacuate Florida in light of Hurricane Irma, saying miniature horses Diva and Barbie were in the minority would be a gross understatement.
Still, Canadian show jumper Jonathan Millar knew exactly where to send his slightly height-challenged equines for safety from the incoming storm when it threatened Wellington. He contacted Josh Dolan of the Peeps Foundation in Lexington, KY, and sent Diva and Barbie north. They arrived the morning of Friday, two days before the storm hit South Florida.
Situated on 25 acres on a presently rented farm in the heart of the Bluegrass, Dolan’s Peeps Foundation is home to 23 miniature horses, five dogs, 35 full-size horses (show horses, retired and rehabbing horses and broodmares), a goat (dubbed “Goaty”), and a colorful spotted llama (“Melman”)—oh, and you can’t forget the two Betta fish living in the kitchen.
Through his foundation, started three years ago, the big-hearted Dolan—a successful professional rider in his own right—and his peers, including Peeps Foundation co-founder Alex Granato of the show jumping operation, Mad Season, LLC, have rescued more than 150 minis and counting. Dolan says most of those rescues have taken place in the past two years.
The founding of the organization was put in motion when Dolan was en route to a Kentucky horse show in 2014 and spotted a “dwarf” miniature turned out a field. Dwarf minis, while gifted with irresistibly cute looks, often come with medical challenges due to conformational faults, including limb deformities. Dolan was familiar with the breed, having grown up with some miniatures on his family’s farm.
“It all happened completely by chance,” Dolan explained. “I saw the one mini and immediately knew it was a dwarf. I had never had one, and I knew I wanted [her].”
When Dolan approached the farm to inquire about the mini, he made an astonishing discovery: There were more than 60 miniature horses in that single field, and some were not in good health. In fact, three had passed, their bodies left among their peers.
“We tried to contact the property owner, but the number was out of service,” Dolan said. “Alex jumped the fence and found the other minis. One foal was so emaciated, it was trying to nurse off Alex’s legs.”
Dolan and Granato’s efforts led to them purchasing 19 of those minis from the farm’s owner, and eventually, they rescued 16 more, most of which were adopted out. Naturally, the mini that had first caught Dolan’s eye stayed, and “Peeps,” a kind-hearted chestnut with an infectious personality, has become a popular organizational mascot, traveling to promote the foundation, now a non-profit 501(c)(3), at horse shows around the country. Beyond her looks—Peeps is often sporting flashes of red in her mane and has been outfitted with a custom blanket from Horseware—she embodies the mission of the organization, having been nursed back to health by Dolan and Granato after contracting Rhodococcus, a rare and deadly bacterial disease.
“There’s just something about her that catches your eye, and when you hear her story, it’s so captivating,” Dolan said. “She represents a lot of really good things.”
Growing the Herd
As the Peeps Foundation’s name grew, so too did the stature of its adopters. Rider and Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco adopted “Shmooshy” in May—good enough to make headlines on People.com and Us Weekly—and promptly created an Instagram page for her new equine partner, @LifeWithShmooshy. Jennifer Gates, Jessica Springsteen, and Ben Maher have also adopted from the organization, and top riders and trainers Ali and Shane Sweetnam, Darragh Kerins, and Louise Serio are among its generous supporters.
But while Dolan adopts out many miniatures, there are quite a few other permanent residents whom the rider doesn’t feel comfortable putting up for adoption due to their special medical needs. Surgeries for rescued dwarf miniatures have become almost commonplace, and Dolan and Granato either rely on funding from donations or pocket those expenses themselves, including those for 6-year-old dwarf mini “Tiny,” who needs special rubber hoof extensions every few months due to seriously deformed front limbs. The mare was originally in the care of monkey breeders, who kept her at the bottom of a monkey cage during the early stages of her life.
“We started out rescuing [minis] from starving; now we’re getting a lot from people who have bought them and can’t care for them anymore,” Dolan explained. “A lot of people buy them at sales and just don’t know how to care for them.”
“Normally, it is the people who get [a mini] for a child and then bred them and realize it is far more work than they thought and that they live a lot longer than they were assuming,” he added, noting it is not unusual for miniatures to live well into their 40s. “I get a lot from people who either have had a death in the family [when the relative was a breeder] or from people who inherit them and don’t want them.”
While miniatures may appear to be low-maintenance pets, they require much of the same care as full-size horses. Dwarves require even more. Dolan notes the importance of worming, teeth filing, and farrier work. He has learned to trim his miniatures’ feet himself, though Aaron Mulholland and Curtis Burns are enlisted for more serious corrective work. Horseware remains a sponsor, donating 200-300 small-model sheets and heavy blankets, which Dolan and Granato often send to other rescue organizations. Dolan and Granato say the response since their first rescue was “tremendous” and is what inspired them to become an official organization.
“We didn’t make that rescue to start an organization; we just did it to help,” Granato said. “Especially from that first rescue, a lot of people in our industry—show jumpers, vets—saw that field and what was happening and told us how glad they were that we did something. To see how many were suffering in that field and the initial rescue had the biggest impact [on me].”
The Latest Venture
The amount of hats Dolan wears almost outnumbers the number of minis on his farm. In addition to his rescue efforts and his riding with Mad Season, Dolan also made the United States’ Men’s Pentathlon team for the 2016 Olympics. He trained at the United States Olympic Training Center last year in the five disciplines that make up the sport—running, swimming, shooting, fencing (what he describes as the hardest sport in the lineup) and, of course, show jumping—before a torn ACL caused him to miss the Games. He’s also an artist, which has led him to his most recent charitable venture.
Teaming up with sister-in-law Cassandra Dolan, who works for the popular clothing brand, Lululemon, Dolan launched the “Be By Dolan” line on September 12. Be By Dolan features tees and tanks with Dolan’s designs—geometric depictions of different animals. For every shirt purchased, 10 percent of the proceeds goes back to the Peeps Foundation. Other purchases go into funds that support the animal breed depicted on the shirt purchased, including lions and elephants (a special “Peeps” shirt is in the works).
“With the foundation and how it came along, we have been coming up with new ideas for fundraising,” Dolan explained. “Be By Dolan is based off giving back: be generous, be you, be better, be giving.”
What else is coming for the Peeps Foundation? Dolan hopes to start a program in which those unable to bring a mini home can “sponsor” them, essentially having a mini as their own, but keeping him or her among Dolan and Granato’s own herd. This would potentially open the door for more dwarf minis to be adopted so that Dolan and Granato could continue to monitor their care.
Dolan’s empathy for animals has also led him to acquire some other standouts to his herd. Hence, Goaty—who, according to Dolan, actually thinks he’s a dog—and Melman the llama who can be found roaming freely around a paddock littered with miniatures of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Some minis travel in small herds; others have their own paddocks or accompany anxious show horses. Still others—the dwarf minis—have free range of the property. It’s a horse lover’s dream landscape—a bit like “My Little Pony” come to life.
“It’s so rewarding to know [some of the situations] that we’ve rescued minis from or what we saved them from becoming—traveling circuses and petting zoos,” Dolan said. “It’s honestly the coolest thing. I can’t put it into words how much I love it.”
In the winter, the entire group—Peeps, Goaty, and all—will travel to Wellington. But for now, all are safe and happily welcoming their temporarily evacuated companions.
After all, they know what it’s like to need rescuing.
For more on the Peeps Foundation, visit thepeepsfoundation.com.
-All photos courtesy of Josh Dolan.
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