This dream team of tiny equines from Gentle Carousel is changing the lives of people across the globe.
Making the rounds at an assisted living home, Magic, a miniature therapy horse from Gentle Carousel, came upon a female resident who seemed to need her attention. The horse gently placed her head in the woman’s lap. “Isn’t she beautiful?” the woman exclaimed. “It’s a horse!” Others in the room looked up in surprise. It was the first time the resident had spoken in over three years.
It’s this kind of magic the miniature therapy horses of Gentle Carousel bring to children and adults in hospitals, assisted living programs, hospice care, and orphanages, as well as to families who have experienced traumatic events.
Small Horses, Big Hearts
This team of tiny equines touches the lives of over 25,000 people a year, and that’s not counting the 150,000-plus fans that follow Gentle Carousel on social media. “The first Gentle Carousel horses worked with young children who had backgrounds of neglect or abuse,” says Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, the organization’s Education Director. “A large horse can be intimidating to a small child, but the miniature horses were easier for the children to trust and befriend.”
That was over 18 years ago, when Gentle Carousel was founded by a single family. It was one of the first organizations to take therapy horses to people who couldn’t travel. Today, the organization is managed by volunteers, and has bases in Tennessee, California and Florida. There is also a program in Athens, Greece, where six horses are involved with orphanages and hospitals.
Making Rehabilitation Fun
Don’t let their small size fool you. The Gentle Carousel horses are involved in complex therapy programs that produce big results. Their tiny size allows them to go indoors, enabling them to assist physical, occupational, and speech therapists. The horses motivate patients in rehabilitation programs to walk for the first time since their accidents; demonstrate rehab training on stairs and ramps; and provide people with emotional support. Most of all, the horses make rehabilitation fun.
And that’s just part of what these remarkable equines do. Gentle Carousel’s award-winning Reading is Magic program pairs miniature horses with at-risk kids in schools, foster care, and hospitals, to help them learn to read. “One of the founders of Gentle Carousel was a school principal,” Debbie explains. “So a reading program was created for libraries and schools that focused on young and at-risk readers.”
The horses also provide comfort for families who have experienced trauma. One of Gentle Carousel’s biggest projects was to visit the children and first responders of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. The excitement surrounding the horses’ visit marked one of the first times since the shooting that the traumatized families felt a return to normality.
Just how powerful is miniature equine therapy? After visiting with Magic, a little boy who was losing his sight due to a brain tumor said: “It is like she can see inside my soul.” He held Magic close to his face so he could always remember what she looked like.
TIME Magazine named Magic one of “History’s Ten Most Heroic Animals” for the many miracles she has provided for people in need. She even inspired a book about the Gentle Carousel horses called The Power of Magic. For every book sold, one is given to a child in hospital.
Big Shoes to Fill
All this therapy work requires rigorous training. The horses go through a two-year basic training program during which they learn how to safely walk up and down steps, ride in elevators, navigate various types of flooring, and move through different kinds of doors and small rooms with very little space. They also learn to be gentle with fragile patients and to deal with crowds of people. They need to be housetrained and not be spooked by loud noises, such as ambulance sirens and helicopters.
Currently, only horses born at Gentle Carousel are trained for therapy work. They begin their training at a young age, but the foals also spend regular time with their mothers. “It is a rare miniature horse that feels both happy and safe in very challenging indoor situations,” Debbie explains. “And we want the horses to have happy, healthy lives.”
Needless to say, only positive training methods are used. The handlers use clicker training to gently guide the horses through all the steps they need to learn. The horses wear harnesses instead of bits, and are also shoeless.
Despite the rigorous training, the horses are never overworked. “They are not indoor pets,” says Debbie. “We want them to live as horses.” Outside of training time, they live on private farms.
Big Things Come In Small Packages
Once the horses finish training, they are usually only required to do two therapy sessions a week, and to attend the occasional event. This past summer, two miniature horses named Magic (see sidebar on page 32) and Hamlet were special BreyerFest guests at the Kentucky Horse Park, as well as 2014 Breyer portrait model horses! These Breyer models will allow even more children to experience the joy of Gentle Carousel miniature therapy horses.
Bringing comfort to trauma victims, assisting with rehabilitation programs, and helping children learn to read are just some of the amazing things these unique horses lend a hoof with. But perhaps the greatest gift from these inspiring equines is the lesson that even the smallest among us can accomplish great things!
If you would like to order Gentle Carousel’s book, The Power of Magic, a book will be given to a child in an orphanage, hospital, or hospice care with every purchase. Order here: http://www.horse-therapy.org/gentle-carousel-s-new-book-.html