Using animals as therapeutic conduits for people in need has become a labor of love for Veronique Matthews, a cancer survivor in Austin, Texas. Veronique learned firsthand about the healing power of animals six years ago when she was sidelined by breast cancer. At her darkest hour, when things seemed very bleak, a 22-inch buckskin dwarf miniature horse named Toby entered her life and things immediately changed for the better.

Toby’s diminutive size allowed him to lay in bed with Veronique during the tough chronic pain episodes. Her excruciating recovery was no longer such an intolerable burden and she began to look forward to what the next day might bring. Toby spent hours in the house every day with Veronique, and seemed to instinctively know when his soothing presence was needed and when he could be more playful.

Veronique realized the powerful effect Toby had on her life, and knew she must share this wonderful gift with others. Soon after getting back on her feet, she founded Hearts & Hooves Inc., a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization dedicated to giving people the opportunity to heal themselves in the same way that she had been healed. With Toby as her guide, Veronique began working with doctors, therapists and educators to facilitate their healing efforts. The results were phenomenal.

As the word spread, people in the miniature horse community started donating little four-legged therapists, and her herd of pint-sized angels grew. Using an old mini van for transport, Veronique and Toby took the herd of little healers anywhere they could make a difference – to hospitals, nursing homes, Alzheimer units, state hospitals, schools for the blind and deaf, neuro rehabilitation centers, schools for persons with disabilities, and women’s abuse centers.

Their way of helping

Working one on one with individuals, a miniature horse instinctively understands the issues that each person is battling with. “The insight of the horses is an amazing thing to see,” says Veronique, who believes that it is this intuitive nature that suits these animals so well to their therapy work. “After getting over the initial shock of having a horse in their room, people seem to relax and open up to the possibilities that these little angels present. We are often able to get more work done with the horses than in multiple sessions of conventional therapy.”

Veronique believes the minis’ success stems from the quiet way the horses help people process their emotions. In nursing homes and state hospitals, the minis provide a willing ear, a much needed outlet for love, and on some occasions, a source of “horse power” during hallway wheel chair races. On visits to rehabilitation units, they encourage patients to push themselves to move and reach beyond their current physical limitations. For the bedridden, the smaller horses are actually lifted into the bed so patients can cuddle and talk to the horse within their comfort zone.

The minis also have a great track record helping children. Acting as communication channels for therapists, they work with kids who have disabilities and troubles, forcing them to look at their issues in a new way. During this process, the children learn a new sense of self-control, respect for others, and appropriate behavioral boundaries. For children with mental and physical disabilities who have faced a life of being different, working with the little horses, who are also unique, is a way to connect and heal some of their own internal scars.

Veronique recalls one such visit to a little boy at the Rosedale School for the Seriously Handicapped and Disabled. “This child couldn’t walk or talk or move his hands much on his own. He couldn’t even hold his head up without it falling over. Our mini Music Man stayed with this boy and nuzzled his cheek, which made the boy smile. This fiveyear- old boy just kept moving his head so he could look into Music Man’s eyes.”

Volunteers only, please

Every work day, Veronique advises her herd of healers where they will be going and asks for volunteers, prompting some horses to step forward to start their day. Although there are 24 minis in the herd, ranging from 22 inches up to 31 inches, each has a choice whether they want to be included or stay home. After baths, breakfast and a short nap, they load up into a mini van and start their day helping others.

While Veronique considers all of her herd incredible, she admits there are a few little angels who really stand out. First, of course, is Toby, the little buckskin dwarf that saved Veronique and became the catalyst for Hearts and Hooves. With an oversized head and crooked legs, he was adored by all. Toby passed over November of 2005 and was given a hero’s farewell by all he had touched.

Then there’s Joey Ramone, the tallest horse at 31 inches, who has proven to be the most sensitive to disabled children. He was also the first to pull wheelchairs with delighted, squealing riders throughout the halls.

Finally, the list wouldn’t be complete without Petey, who had a very rough start in life. Although he has crooked legs due to growth plate abnormalities, he is the fastest runner in the bunch. His calling is working with the elderly and he has recently learned to recognize children with bullying tendencies, often giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Dreams become reality

Six years after the inception of Hearts & Hooves, Veronique finds herself and her herd constantly busy. Requests for visits have increased, as have the number of willing volunteers. The minis’ expertise is in endless demand not only around the Austin area, but throughout the U.S. and Canada as well. Veronique never imagined how positive a response her volunteers and their tiny cavalry would receive. She’s grateful for the opportunity to bring the minis’ talents to humans.

“I’m always astonished and humbled by just how much animals know about us,” says Veronique “This is just an amazing thing to experience.”

If you are interested in learning more about Hearts & Hooves, or becoming a part of the mission by making a donation, visit their website at www.heartsandhooves.org.

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