Sister Bernadette's Growing Herd of Midget Horses Helps Make Hay for a Texas Monastery

updated 06/11/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/11/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Oh my," gushed a woman to a breeder at the horse show in Dallas. "I just luhv the name of your entries. 'Monastery of St. Clare Horses' is so cuh-yute. And I do want to congratulate you on your getup." The breeder glanced down at her "getup"—a heavy brown robe with a hank of knotted rope for a belt—smiled at her admirer and gently assured her that the horses really did belong to a monastery and that she was, indeed, a nun. Then she bent down to pat one of her horses on the nose. Sister Bernadette, 66, and her 15 sisters in the Order of St. Clare are proving that not everything is bigger in Texas: They supplement their income by raising and selling miniature horses.

At first glance the horselets are something of a shock. Originally bred as royal pets in Europe, they were later used to haul carts in coal mines. In the U.S. they have recently enjoyed new popularity as pets and show animals. The object of breeders is to produce a horse as small as possible (and never taller than 34 inches at the withers) that looks, as much as possible, like its larger cousins. Sister Bernadette recently sold one especially cute 16-incher for $10,000; usually her bonsai Black Beauties bring about $3,000.

Arranging horse shows and scheduling stud services was not always Sister Bernadette's vocation. Born Nina Muller, she left her Northfield, N.J. home—and its menagerie of dogs, cats, rabbits and turtles—to enter a convent when she was 16. "No one that age would be accepted now," she says. Over the years she has changed orders and names. ("I have had more names than a convict," she jokes.) At one point her duties included teaching piano; during another period she spent 12 years in cloistered seclusion praying for the spiritual welfare of mankind. Twenty years ago she was made Mother Superior of the Order of St. Clare Monastery just outside Corpus Christi. She now serves as Vicaress.

From the start Sister Bernadette looked for ways to add to the small income the sisters earned from making ceramic religious figurines and distributing Communion wafers to local churches. At first they tried raising tropical birds, but the budgies were a bust. Then came a stint breeding exotic cats, which yielded little more than a few laughs; the bubbly Sister Bernadette used to giggle when callers were told she was "in the cathouse."

The nuns got into horse trading a few years ago when an Ohio breeder donated two miniatures to the monastery. They were fruitful and multiplied, and now the nuns sell eight or 10 horses per year. The program is going so smoothly that Sister Bernadette says she is unperturbed by news that danger from botched landings at a nearby military airstrip will force the monastery to be relocated. Somehow, she suggests, Someone will provide: "I am sure that everything will be just hunky-dory."

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