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Tin Men and Tiny Horses

There's no place like Betty Ozmon's home.

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From the looks of it, Bette Ozmon may have been duped. She paid $8,000 for a silver filly, Heidenway's Peaches 'N Cream--who turned dark: mottled brown with silver and black streaking. "I'm so angry, I don't even want to think about it," Ozmon says, kicking a clump of hay as we walk around her Marengo farm. "I had such hopes."

If by some miracle Peaches returns to her silver shading, she can be mated with a silver stallion, Ozmon explains. The silver foals would be worth their weight in gold. What really makes Ozmon mad is that Peaches and her intended are a great match, physically. Both are perfect miniatures, standing not quite 34 inches tall. They look like full-size horses, shrunk by some wizard's trick.

Here at the Land of Oz, the name of her 300-acre farm in rural McHenry County, Ozmon raises miniature horses for show and for sale. There are 32 of them. Visitors are welcome, as long as arrangements are made in advance. The miniatures aren't the only draw: 22 tall, elegant black Morgans share the grazing space. Four Maltese terriers, including one named Toto Too, are penned behind the house. And a llama wanders somewhere in the fields.

A painted rainbow on Ozmon's front gate, inscribed "There's no place like home," is the first hint that more whimsy lies beyond. As you drive through, an army of barking dogs not only warns you to be careful where you roam, but keeps the grazing miniatures from wandering onto Menge Road.

"Miniatures are great lawn mowers, great fertilizer providers, and they're a pet, all in one," Ozmon says, as she walks around the property. She's wearing a turquoise T-shirt that bears the slogan "Run, Toto, Run."

"The miniatures are great fun. You can take them to a horse show or a parade. You can dress them in racing costumes, with racing carts. You can put a horn on them and call them unicorns."

Ozmon likes to dress hers up as characters from the 1939 movie classic The Wizard of Oz. In one recent parade her trainer, Charles Headrick, dressed as the scarecrow; a friend, Barb Colagrossi, dressed in a yellow caftan and called herself the yellow brick road; and her prized miniature, Oz's Sir X-Cei-Lance, had his white coat dyed blue to be a "horse of a different color."

When first born, miniature horses stand from 12 to 20 inches tall and weigh 30 to 40 pounds. A mature miniature weighs about 200 pounds.

Ozmon explains that miniatures cannot stand taller than 34 inches at 36 months of age if they are to qualify for registration with the American Miniature Horse Association, in Burleson, Texas, or the American Miniature Horse Registry, in Peoria, Illinois, an offshoot of the American Shetland Pony Club. All Ozmon's miniatures are registered in both.

"For every quarter of an inch less in height, a miniature's value increases," Ozmon says. "We start selling them at $1,000, and the price goes up. We only sell the babies. If you buy a fully mature miniature, you're going to pay more because you're not taking a risk. You know that horse is a miniature, not going to get any bigger. I've turned down $50,000 for Sir. I heard that a miniature on the east coast recently went for $110,000. I always knew miniatures would be a good investment.

"The value of a horse is based on its conformity," she adds. "It can't have a long back and short legs. It must be in perfect proportion with a large horse."

Ozmon started her business in the mid-1960s, breeding black Morgans. Known for its versatility, a Morgan can be used for riding or for drawing a carriage, and is easily trained for show. "The original Morgan horse came from a New England schoolteacher," Ozmon explains, as one of her large horses romps in its corral. "They're beautiful, aren't they? Well, this schoolteacher bred a stallion to some gray mares, and with each breeding the foal came out true to the original stallion. The teacher called the breed 'the Morgan,' and wound up with four Morgan stallions. One of those first stallions was called Blackhawk, and I chose to return to the Blackhawk line and raise my black Morgans."

Prices for Morgans in the midwest have never been as high as prices out east, she says. "In the east, they're still getting show-horse prices: $30,000 to $40,000. I sell mine for $5,000. The drought last year really affected us. Suddenly people realized just how expensive it was to feed a horse--the price of hay skyrocketed."

In the mid-1970s, Ozmon brought home her first miniature, a black stallion she named Arrowbrook Rocky. "Our trainer at the time took one look at this little horse and said, 'What the hell is that?' He refused to work with him," Ozmon recalls. "When he finally decided to see what this little guy could do, Rocky must have figured now was his chance to show off. He was twice International Reserve Grand Champion in showing."

Ozmon now prefers the miniatures. She says that they're not only good investments, but easier to care for. "You can brush and groom them with ease. Look at those big Morgans. It takes forever to brush them. And they eat like, well, a horse. A miniature eats a half a pound of grain a day and half a flake of hay a day--maybe a dollar's worth of food."

There's only one thing to watch out for, Ozmon warns. "During winter you have to shovel a path for the miniatures, because they're too little. You can't be gone during a blizzard, because the horses can get stuck in a snowdrift and they'll die. I lost a little stallion years ago that way. I let him wander up into the hills, and he got stuck among the evergreens--the snow was too tall for him. I found him in the spring, when the snow melted."

In the 16th and 17th centuries, miniature dogs and horses were popular among the royalty of Europe. "I have no idea why the miniatures fell out of favor. But once the royal families didn't have them around, the little horses wound up with traveling circuses, where their popularity grew among the masses.

"There have always been breeding farms for miniatures. The most famous one is called Falabella, in Argentina," Ozmon says. "Sometime around the 1940s, there was a resurgence of interest in breeding miniatures, but nothing like the interest we're seeing today.

"The average buyer is someone older, someone who used to have a farm, maybe now has a few acres and wants a different kind of pet," Ozmon says. She recently sold two miniatures to a couple in New Hampshire and made arrangements with the Flying Tigers delivery service to ship them. "They have a condominium complex in New Hampshire, and they want to use the horses as a public relations thing--as a draw. They're going to put little pens right out in front of the place."

Unlike the Shetland pony, the miniature horses should not be ridden. "They're just too small," Ozmon says. "But they're strong enough to pull a cart, and that's what they should be used for around children." Ozmon has had four tiny carriages specially made for her miniatures.

Ozmon, who was born Bette Rose in Rochester, Minnesota, developed her love of horses during her early years on the family farm. "My grandfather would put me up on the back of a great big old black farm horse when I was two or three years old. It seemed like an awful long way to the ground, I remember. That's probably why I like miniature horses."

Her mother, appropriately named Dorothy, would read the "Wizard of Oz" books to young Bette nearly every night. "Our house was struck by lightning when I was a child," Ozmon says. "All of the Oz memorabilia was destroyed. I had to start collecting it all over again."

There's no place like Bette Ozmon's home. Each of the ten rooms in her farmhouse is filled with memorabilia from The Wizard of Oz--not only from the movie, but also from the Oz books by Chicago writer L. Frank Baum.

Ozmon serves tea, in a rainbow teapot, in her library. Its red walls, red carpeting, and red sofas nearly glow in the afternoon sun. A complete set of Franklin Mint commemorative Oz plates lines the walls. A tin-man lamp is propped up in one corner. Each major Oz movie character is represented in doll form throughout the house.

Music boxes that play "Over the Rainbow" are found on nearly every table. Replicas of the ruby slippers grace the dining-room table. Rainbow platters abound. "I always tell people they know what to get for me," Ozmon says. "I love rainbows. They make you realize that no matter how difficult times might be, there's always something good coming.

"Yes, I'm a little crazy about Oz," she says. "But if there weren't eccentric people in the world, the world would be a pretty boring place."

When she met Nat Ozmon, it seemed like a match made in heaven. "I just had to look around for someone with that name--that's all there was to it," she says. The Ozmons, now divorced, raised four children, three of their own and one who was literally left on their doorstep.

In 1961 the family settled into Vindbaken Farms (Windy Hill in Swedish). "I didn't think anybody would remember that, so I said, 'Let's call it the Land of Oz.'"

For several years they hired a young woman named Lee, a midget, to perform at farm shows. Dressed in a Munchkin-like outfit, Lee was called Queen Ozmon. "We had a chair that looked like a large hand, and we had a banner stating, 'Queen Ozmon in the Hand of Oz.' Anything hokey, you know?"

Until recently, Ozmon worked as a professor of nursing at Loyola University and at Lewis University in Lockport. She has a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Illinois, a master's from Loyola, and only has to write her dissertation to finish a doctorate in curriculum supervision from Northern Illinois University.

At this point in her life, she's content to spend her time with her horses. "The truth is, I've reached a stage in life where I need to de-thing myself. I've reached the point where this house has to become an antique shop, a gift shop, or a museum. Or I move out."

For travel information on Marengo and McHenry County, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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