You’d think that the daughter of two hunter trainers—Johnny Barker and Parker Haynes Minchin—would’ve had a fancy, big-name pony to show in the leadline.
Jennifer Barker—now a professional trainer herself, showed a mini-mule in the leadline. That’s right, a mule. With long ears and a bit of a bray.
Oscar came into Jennifer’s life when Marvin Cobb, the farrier for the family’s business at the time, gave him to her as a gift when Jen was just 1. Cobb bred and raised the mini-mules.
“Oscar was a combination of first pony, best friend and babysitter,” Jen said. “My parents would put him on a longe line and tie him to a tree in my yard where they could see me. I would play with Oscar for hours, and they didn’t have to worry about me wandering off because I wouldn’t go any further than his longe line would let him go.”
“I don’t think Jennifer knew he was different than the ponies,” said Minchin. “He was fabulous. We couldn’t get him to do anything but jog; we never got him to canter. But he’d jog along and be so good for Jennifer. She didn’t ride him that much once she was off of the leadline because he was so little that it was hard to find tack to fit well. We had mini-saddles, but they’d slide around on him.”
Oscar accompanied the Barker family’s show string to all the big shows. When the time for the leadline class rolled around, he’d get braided—mane and tail—just like any other leadline mount.
“Our horses were all used to him, but other horses were terrified of him because he was so little, and he didn’t look like a horse!” Minchin said. “Miniature mules don’t really bray, but they don’t really whinny either. They kind of have a unique noise. And if he made any noise, he cleared out the ring pretty quickly!
“He got loose at Blowing Rock [North Carolina] one year and ran down the hill,” Minchin continued. “There were a bunch of people in the warm-up ring, and he was running down the hill shaking his head and braying. It was quite the sight, and there was nobody left in the ring.”
Jen says people are surprised to learn her first pony was actually a miniature mule. “I guess they assume that I would have had some fancy old show pony,” she said. “But Oscar was very fancy! He won a ton at mule shows, and he was absolutely beautiful. His ears were just a little bigger than the other ponies!”
At home, Oscar was more of a pet than a mount. Jen spent hours grooming him and playing with him. He’d jump in the car if the door was opened for him, and he wasn’t averse to climbing the porch stairs and making his way into the house to say hello.
“Jennifer was crazy about him. When she started the leadline, she didn’t care that much about the riding part of it,” Minchin said. “She just loved the animals, brushing them and leading them around and playing with them. As the years went by, she liked the actual riding more and more, but when she had Oscar she was pretty content to just play with him. He was so small that he was great for her to do that.”
Oscar lived out his days at Minchin’s farm, where the legendary hunter mare Rox Dene was also retired, earning his keep as a pasture-mate. “Oscar was a turn-out buddy for Rox Dene’s first colt, Rocky, and they played together,” she said. “They always had a Jolly Ball, and he and Oscar would grab ahold of that ball and play tug-o-war. They destroyed a Jolly Ball a week playing.”
And when it was Oscar’s time to go, he was buried on her farm with fond memories.