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By Ryan Bakken, Forum Communications Co., Published November 15 2009

Horse just the right size for teen

EMERADO, N.D. – Bella nuzzled Jenny. Jenny nuzzled her back.

“Nice,” the 13-year-old said about the exchange of affection. She enjoyed the kiss, but she enjoyed something even more about the interaction. Neither she nor the 1-year-old miniature horse needed to raise her head.

“I’ve never had a horse my size before,” Jenny Wippler said. “I like it that her head and my head are the same height.”

Jenny stands 3-foot-7. She is done growing because of a condition commonly known as dwarfism.

She has loved horses ever since she can remember. Her room décor can be described in one word: equine.

She was thrilled when she could ride. “When you feel the wind blow in your face, that’s really nice,” she said.

But the rides also were scary – for her and anyone watching. At 50 pounds, Jenny didn’t have the strength to control a 1,200-pound animal that wanted to take a bite of grass, much less control the reins.

“And she couldn’t kick hard enough to get a horse to get going,” said her father, Scott.

Even if the horse followed her commands, its size made it difficult for her to stay in the saddle.

“It was like someone else trying to ride an elephant,” said her mother, Gloria.

Jenny explained her love/fear relationship with bigger horses: “It was a long way down if I fell. I didn’t want to get trampled.”

Love of miniatures

Jenny also had an early relationship with miniatures. Starting at age 1, she used hippotherapy as a way to improve her balance. In hippotherapy, patients sit and lie on the back of a horse.

The roots of Jenny landing Bella – and Bella landing Jenny – came in July. That’s when the Wipplers met Merrill and Janet Meyer of Portland, N.D., on a trail ride.

The Meyers operate Danna’s Miniature Horses, named after their 20-year-old daughter, who has mild mental retardation. Having special-needs daughters and an affection for small horses in common, the two families quickly became friends.

“We got into miniatures because they’re so gentle,” Janet said. “They’re a very good companion for our daughter. We didn’t know we’d all fall in love with them.”

The Meyers invited Jenny and her 8-year-old sister, Jessica, to handle their registered minis at regional horse shows. The Wipplers have two minis in their traveling petting zoo business, but they aren’t of show quality.

“We were impressed with the girls,” Janet said. “They had enough horse sense that they caught on quickly. We enjoy seeing our horses shown, and it’s especially more fun when it’s a kid doing it.”

The partnership continued at the American Miniature Horse Registry Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., in September.

The girls combined for six top-10 ribbons in the youth division at the nationals, the world’s largest show for minis.

But Jenny’s big prize in Tulsa came outside the show ring.

Bonding with Bella

Jenny won the youth essay contest at the AMHR nationals, and Bella was the prize.

Janet said the arena had few dry eyes when the essay was read.

Bella, whose formal name is Cross Country Made in America, has a value of $5,000. But the Wipplers have no plans to sell her. Bella will be Jenny’s show horse – and pal.

The bonding has started. When Jenny enters the pasture, Bella comes to her. But it’s not all fun. Jenny is awake at 6 a.m. to do her chores, and Saturdays mean a complete cleaning of her pen in the heated garage.

She can handle the physical work despite two back surgeries in March at the University of Minnesota. A shattered vertebrae means her basketball-playing days are over, however. When she made her first basket on a 10-foot hoop in a game last year, a prodigious heave for someone of her height, the fans went wild.

“We’ve always taught Jenny that she can do whatever she wants,” her mother said. “Even if something is hard for her, she’ll try it. She always picks the best things out of life.”

Jenny is inspired by the television show “Little People, Big World,” a reality series where both parents and one of their children are dwarfs.

While 13-year-olds typically are worried about not fitting in, Jenny isn’t self-conscious about her size. Nor does she feel sorry for herself. When asked why, she hurries into the other room and returns with a small piece of paper. The words written by her mom say: “Whenever you feel in pain or don’t get your way, think of what Devin went through.”

Jenny’s brother, Devin, died at age 4 from complications from the same rare form of dwarfism, called cartilage-hair hypoplasia. One year older, Devin always took care of his younger sister.

“He even talked for her,” Gloria said. “After Devin died, Jenny wouldn’t talk, and we had to beg her to eat and drink. It got so bad that we almost had to put her on an intravenous feeding tube.”

Jenny was comforted at bed time by having Devin’s pajamas beside her. “Devin always smelled good,” Jenny remembered. “His pajamas still smelled like him.”

Big personality

Not everything about Jenny is small. With her flaming red hair, steely blue eyes and happy, bright and outgoing personality, she has a commanding presence.

She also has a sense of humor.

Although she can’t reach the top of her locker, being small isn’t all bad, she said. “When you go trick-or-treating, you get better candy if you’re small.”

Bakken is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.