Sisters Michelle and Kristy Taynor of McCandless are among thousands of Pennsylvania teens who show horses in 4-H.
The girls compete on the common 5-foot, 1,000-pound creatures like many of their peers, but have held the reins of a top state title three times in four years behind a much more petite breed.
Kristy, 17, and Sweet Dreams won the senior division of the Pennsylvania 4-H State Championship Miniature Horse Driving competition last month in Harrisburg.
Michelle, 14, took home the title in 2011, before the competitors were divided into two divisions -- ages 8-13, juniors, and ages 14-18, seniors.
The sisters would have competed head-to-head, but Kristy didn't qualify.
Both were denied in 2010 and Kristy won it all in 2009.
"They listen very well," said Tanya Haney, 27, their trainer and owner of the minis.
"They bond with their horse."
The American Miniature Horse Association will not register horses that exceed 34 inches in height at the withers -- the highest part of a horse's back at the base of the neck above the shoulders.
Driving competitors ride in small carts pulled by the miniature horses and circle an arena at different designated paces. Judges grade posture and control of the horse's movement, actions, and behavior.
The girls joined the North Ridge Riders 4-H Club, which Kristy now leads as president, after moving from Raleigh, N.C., in 2005 with their parents, David and Pamela.
Ms. Haney recruited Michelle at a horse show two years later to work with and train one of her minis.
Ms. Taynor's initial reaction matched that of most people who have no experience with the hobby.
"I didn't know exactly what it was. I was kind of bewildered," she said. "I came down here, and they were so cute and adorable."
Ms. Taynor is referring to Park View Riding Academy in McCandless, where Ms. Haney trains riders and houses more than a dozen horses.
Driving the small horses provided a stark contrast to riding the full-sized animals, which Michelle said she realized the first day she got into a cart and squeezed her legs, but the horse didn't move.
"You only have the reins and the whip," explained Kristy. "With riding you have much more control."
Training a miniature horse to drive can take anywhere from three to six months, depending on the age and temperament.
Soon after Michelle began training, Kristy was itching to join her.
"All summer watching her work with the horse, I was the older sister seeing my little sister do something I couldn't do," she said.
Kristy first competed in 2009 and finished the season a state champion.
She credits a large part of her success to her bond with 12-year-old Sweet Dreams, who went largely untrained for nine years and was then driving four months after meeting Kristy.
"No one understood Sweet Dreams until Kristy started driving her," Ms. Haney said.
Both trainer and driver agree that the pair share many of the same stubborn and determined characteristics.
"If that shows leadership or stupidity, I'm not sure," Kristy joked.
Now Michelle, who wants to become a veterinarian, is working with her own star, 2-year-old Dottie. She took about six months of regular handling and training to get comfortable driving, but proved a natural therapy horse.
Like many of the horses in Ms. Haney's stable, Dottie participates in Riding for the Handicapped of Western PA, an all-volunteer therapeutic horseback riding program that recently moved to Park View Riding Academy.
Dottie also has made three visits to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for pet and play time.
"She wants to be petted," Ms. Haney said. "She loves little kids."
Ms. Taynor said her daughters' horse hobby has kept them occupied and free of troubles that other teens face while teaching them the value of hard work.
Both forgo Christmas gifts in exchange for money to maintain their horses.
Kristy is a senior and hopes to study biology at Otterbein University or Yale, which will be too far from home to travel back to train for state championships next fall.
"This was probably her last go around," Ms. Taynor said. "She went out on top."
Taryn Luna: email@example.com or 412-263-1985.