Pint-sized therapy horses give comfort, laughter and surprise
By KL Snyder, Photography by Kelvin Andow
When it comes to lifting spirits, therapy dogs and therapy horses are equal,” said Chris Humble, volunteer services director at Seasons Hospice in Rochester.
“Both bring a lot of joy and spread a lot of love. But there’s something about a miniature horse walking out of an elevator that creates a stir.”
All the more so when the wee equine is wearing black sneakers on her petite feet and orange bows in her braided mane, with her fluffy tail nearly touching the floor. The adorable author of the hubbub one morning in September was Pearl, a pearly white, pink-nosed therapy mini horse on a visit to Shorewood senior community, Rochester.
“I’m a big one on going overboard on overdressing my horses,” said Bonnie Prestegard, Pearl’s escort. Pearl, all finery and aplomb, earned the oohs and aahs of staff and residents.
Oh my, look at those shoes! “They keep her from slipping on hard floors,” Bonnie said.
Horsey, you’re beautiful! Pearl conferred a nuzzle. You’re a lover, too.
Does she do tricks? Yes, and she was happy to demonstrate: stand, stay, back up, twirl, curtsy, give me a kiss. “Now,” said Bonnie, “she gets a cookie.”
“It’s amazing to see what big smiles that little horse inspires,” Chris said.
A and B Ranch
Bonnie, her husband Allan and their three therapy minis live at A and B Ranch (abranch.net) in rural Pine Island. She takes the horses on therapy outings to nursing homes, hospices and other care facilities. She trains others’ mini horses for therapy work. And because of a caller who said, “Help! I bought a miniature therapy horse but don’t know what to do with it,” she teaches handling, too.
If anyone had told Bonnie a few years ago that she’d be doing this, she’d have snorted. Like a horse.
She did love horses and owned several, all in regular sizes. But minis? She had no interest. Minis for therapy? She’d never heard of it. Many people haven’t; but for at least two decades, miniature horses have been used as therapy animals.
Billy the Kid and Divine Providence
Bonnie describes the annual Minnesota Horse Expo as, for horse owners, “the place to go in the spring for what you need in the summer.”
When she headed up to Expo 2011, she wasn’t foreseeing a need, summertime or anytime, for a miniature horse. Then she spotted Billy the Kid casting a big-eyed gaze at her. He was buckskin, her favorite horse color, with black mane, tail and legs. “He was fuzzy and so darned cute I couldn’t take my eyes off him.”
She resisted. She walked away from his stall. She went back. And away and back and—“If he was for sale, I’d buy him,” she told her friend Sue who scoffed and left to shop for cowboy shirts. She returned 10 minutes later to find Bonnie writing a check and asking, “How are we going to get him home?”
Bonnie confesses that Billy’s charm chased all the horse sense out of her head. “I didn’t inspect his feet or his teeth or anything. It was a divine appointment with this little stallion. I didn’t even know he was a stallion.”
She brought him home; he followed her around like a puppy; she wondered what to do with him. “He was so cute, but I couldn’t just admire him.” She taught him tricks and horse show skills, and by August he’d learned so much she entered him in a show at the Olmsted County Fair. “He got first in almost everything—showmanship, jumps, obstacles and more. He’s such a showoff. A real ham. He loves attention.”
All the next summer he starred in horse shows. “By September the show season was done,” said Bonnie, “but I wasn’t ready to quit. I thought, what else can we do?”
She contemplated taking him to visit residents at Pine Haven Care Center in Pine Island. She rejected the silly idea, but the silly idea kept nagging. Divine Providence persisted, she said. She expected Char Tewalt, Pine Haven activities director, to neigh-say the notion, “but Char said, ‘How exciting! When can you come?’ And I said, ‘I have to bathe him first.’”
Billy’s first therapy gig
Thirty residents gathered to meet Billy, who was dressed up like a pumpkin. Bonnie, also in pumpkin getup, led him around to each person. He performed his tricks and basked in the applause. A woman in a wheelchair smiled and reached out to touch his face. “Giddy-up,” she said. Later Bonnie learned that the woman had difficulty moving her arms and seldom spoke.
As Bonnie and Billy were leaving, a staff member walking ahead of them paused at a resident’s room. “Would you like to see the little horse?” she asked the man.
“No!” he snapped. Then as Billy ambled past his door, the fellow boomed, “But I’ll see him!”
Billy’s success delighted Bonnie. “I thought I was on to something.”
The next outing to Pine Haven featured a wedding. Billy, dapper in a white top hat, married Gracie, who looked demure in her bridal veil. Bonnie bought Gracie “because I wanted to see what a baby would look like.” The baby, a filly nicknamed Baby who’s as adorable as her dam and sire, was born last June.
A year after Bonnie got Gracie, she purchased Pearl who will foal in May. (Billy’s big eyes are roving eyes. He isn’t a faithful husband.)
Expanding their territory
News of the mini therapy horses spread. Bonnie accepted invitations from nursing homes in Plainview and Stewartville, and a Red Wing care facility invited her to bring her horses every day.
Grateful for the excellent care Seasons Hospice had given her mother, Bonnie wanted to add it to her itinerary, but hesitated. “I put off calling because I was afraid they would reject me.” When she finally worked up the courage to phone, she talked to Chris Humble who said “Wow! That sounds great!”
A and B volunteers
A trio of equines, though diminutive, require much labor. Bonnie, 70, is fortunate to have several horse-loving helpers, some younger than others. Maddy Exe, 14, of Pine Island began volunteering when she was 11. “When I shampoo Pearl, she gets clean,” Bonnie said, “but when Maddy shampoos her she gets super clean.”
Maddy also takes part in parades with Bonnie and the minis, as does Ricky Harrison, 17, of Mantorville. One of his specialties is clipping the horses whose winter coats grow thick as sheep’s wool.
Exploring more ways to help
“I see such a need in the community,” said Bonnie. “I want to serve a variety of people and organizations—alcohol and drug addiction recovery, autism, school groups and others.” She regretted turning down a woman from Russia whose son was a patient at Saint Marys Hospital. “She wanted me to bring a horse to his birthday party, but I had to say no because there’s no place to park the horse trailer.” So Bonnie and Allen bought a capacious van that they’re converting to accommodate two miniature horses.
She has also introduced farm visits. “They’re more hands-on,” she said, “and visitors can see more horses and spend more time with them and see their home.”
In September a party of nine residents and staff from Wing House, a transitional care facility in Rochester for adults with brain injuries or neurological disorders, paid a call. Bonnie, Allen, several A and B Ranch volunteers and Rudy, the Prestegard’s large white-gold Lab, greeted the guests. (Bonnie, who is training Rudy as a therapy dog so she, he and equines can work as a team, rates horse training easier than dog training.)
Music played as Bonnie took Billy through his paces. “Walk, stop, back up, turn tight circles and corners. Once they learn to follow, I put it to music. Horses like music just as we do.” To prove it, Billy danced. Then he kissed Bonnie. (The smooching Billy shows much tooth.)
The visitors took turns walking Billy. “I love it,” said one.
Volunteer Ricky was everywhere, answering questions, keeping an eye on Baby who was happily munching the lawn, showing guests the horses’ quarters and their salad bar—the grassy grazing area behind the barn. Another volunteer, Fran Bell of Dodge Center, said, “Ricky won’t tell you this, but he’s Bonnie’s right-hand man.”
A guest petted Billy and, marveling at his soft fur asked, “How much time do we have?”
Another guest’s instant rapport with the minis prompted a Wing House staff member to dub her Horse Whisperer.
“One of the things animals bring is emotional healing,” said the Horse Whisperer. “The connection between animals and people is so strong. It’s as simple as that.”
5 facts about miniature horses
- Mini horses date back to 17th century Europe. The lucky ones were pets of nobility; the less fortunate worked as pack horses in coal mines.
- Minis measure 34 inches or under at the withers, half the height of an average-size horse. Regarding weight, Bonnie Prestegard likes to keep each of her minis between 150 and 200 lbs. The average horse weighs five times to many times more depending on breed.
- A miniature horse can pull 400 lbs.
- Minis aren’t ponies. Ponies are stockier than most horses. Miniature horses are scaled-down models of regular horses. “Minis are calmer than ponies,” said Bonnie who has owned both. “Minis are sweet and easy-going. They love people and want to please them. Ponies can be crabby.”
- Minis’ life expectancy is 30 to 35 years. They can work as therapy animals much longer than dogs can. Minis also make fine guide and service animals.
Freelance writer KL Snyder seeks suggestions on getting her two Cocker Spaniels to listen to her.