Photo by Matt Stensland
Chuck and Betty Sweetland have kept miniature horses at their Oak Creek ranch since 1999. Chuck stands with Tiny while Betty holds Dakota.
Chuck Sweetland looks like a giant, from the right angle. Towering above a stable of horses, the longtime Oak Creek resident has pictures of himself picking up his horses and carrying them in his arms like children.
Not everybody can do that - but not everybody has miniature horses.
Chuck and Betty Sweetland have lived in Oak Creek since 1952. Since 1963, they've lived on the Sweetland Ranch, where they raised quarter horses for years. The Sweetland's daughter and son-in-law gave them their first miniature horse in 1999.
Just 10 days after they received that horse, the mare gave birth, and the Sweetlands haven't stopped breeding them since.
Ranging from about 33 to 37 inches tall at the Sweetland ranch, the miniature horses are the same breed as regular horses, just selectively bred for their small stature. Miniature horses used to be popular for coal miners to take into the mines with them, Betty Sweetland said, and if they grow larger than 38 inches, they are considered Shetland ponies.
On the outskirts of Oak Creek, just over the town boundary, the Sweetland Ranch has had as many as 14 miniature horses at a time, and is now home to eight.
The horses are a regular fixture at the Taste of South Routt festival. This year, the Sweetlands' miniature horses will appear at the Taste of South Routt on June 27, and the Sweetlands will let older children lead the horses.
Taste of South Routt organizer David Moran said the horses are always a big hit with the crowd.
The Sweetlands also take the horses to the Doak Walker Care Center in Steamboat Springs. Betty Sweetland said it is a way to spark memories and often leads to long discussions about the role of horses in the Doak residents' lives.
"To keep them so gentle, you need to work with them from the time they're born," Betty Sweetland said. She said that the couple often puts a harness on a horse about three days after it's born to begin its training.
She said they haven't rigged up the tiny harnesses to a wagon for several years because they don't have two horses that match up well in size, but the wagon remains in the barn,
with foal-sized harnesses hanging in the shed.
The Sweetlands also have been instrumental in the distribution of miniature horses across South Routt County, selling the horses to "good homes" across the county and as far away as Wyoming.
"When you baby them like we do, it's pretty hard to sell them," Chuck Sweetland said.