Hold Your Horses

Four-legged Therapy Touches Hearts

This little pony gets a big hug from Claudine Nichols, a resident at Imboden Creek Living Center, Decatur, Illinois. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Pamela Smith)

Old-fashioned horse sense would dictate four-legged animals don't belong inside nursing homes, libraries, medical facilities or schools. However, that's exactly where Andra Ebert leads her miniature horses.

The owner of Heartland Mini Hoofs, Taylorville, Illinois, uses these tiny horses to help soothe angst, deliver joy and teach lessons in ways ordinary humans can't. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing practice worldwide, and Ebert has seen it work miracles that defy explanation.

She can tell tales of therapy horses teasing words from silent Alzheimer patients. She has heartwarming stories of horses instinctively dropping to their knees to gently nuzzle the outstretched hand of the bedridden.

"The horses get along with everyone. It amazes me how they work within a variety of ages, from screaming high school students to quiet nursing home patients," Ebert said. "But, they seem to connect most with those who have a genuine need of emotional support."


How big is little? Imagine a horse the size of a large dog weighing in at around 140 pounds. Mini horses are determined by the height of the animal. Depending on the breed, that's usually less than 34 to 38 inches, as measured at the last hairs of the mane at the withers.

Ebert's string includes five-year-old Jasper, the chestnut she considers the dependable old man of the group; three-year-old Bailey, a black pinto with white spots that is the pack leader; and Winnie, a two-year-old buckskin with striking black features Ebert said is the most spoiled of the three.

These tiny animals were originally bred to work and to be exposed to various types of machinery and contraptions. In the middle 1800s, miniature horses came to America for use in coal mines. They were the perfect size to negotiate small tunnels and strong enough to tow a coal car.

Today, their job is more about empathy than horsepower. Not every horse has the right stuff either. Ebert purchased all three of her minis from a special breeder in South Carolina. She said the best way to pick the perfect therapy horse is to sit in a field among them and wait to see which one comes to seek you out.

"A good therapy animal has to be calm and curious. They have to want to go see people," Ebert said.


Claudine Nichols could barely hold her horses as she waited for Ebert's minis to make an appearance at Imboden Creek Living Center, Decatur, Illinois. The residents sat in a semicircle, anxiously waiting for Jasper and Bailey to trot through the doors.

"Come here honey," Nichols urged Jasper. Ebert motioned, which gave him permission to step closer. Within seconds, he gently was snickering sweet nothings in Nichols' ear. "I know, I know ... why don't you just come live with me?" Nichols whispered back. Memories flowed all around as residents relate stories of plow horses on the farm or long-gone childhood ponies.

Seeing and hearing these personal interactions keeps Ebert going. Last year, she and the horses logged 12,000 miles making 138 visits to various institutions. She tries not to stray too far from home, but demand for her services is growing.


Ebert and husband, Bill, work to desensitize the horses to all sorts of objects and noises to prepare them for therapy work.

"We practice going around a wheel chair, a walker, a bed and a ventilator. The minis live in my husband's shop, so he will start the tractor or the combine right next to them so they will get used to loud noises. Every interaction is training for them," Ebert said.

The horses are registered through the American Miniature Horse Association. There are specific standards and tests required to make sure each team is properly qualified to do this type of work.

Before the gang loads up for a visit, the minis are brushed head to toe. Feet are washed with hydrogen peroxide until they are cleaner than most peoples' shoes. ShowSheen, a hair polish and detangler, is used to make manes and tails sleek and shiny.

The minis wear poop bags and personalized vests. Ebert said, "The horses know they are working when the vest goes on. The rule during a visit is, if I move, they move; if I stop, they stop. When the vest comes off, they are a normal horse that runs, kicks and plays."

A personalized cargo trailer is transportation for these therapy horses. The trailer windows are a short 32 inches off the floor so these little horses can look out while going down the road. They get a third of a cup of grain morning and night, along with hay. On days when they are not working, they are turned out to enjoy pasture grazing all day long after they eat their breakfast.


Ebert has a special program for schoolchildren called "Just Say Whoa to Bullying." It teaches children to recognize and respect differences in one another.

She explains to children that horses are a united pack, always looking out for each other. This type of bullying prevention program, using animal-assisted activities with miniature therapy animals to foster kindness and encourage positivity, is the first of its kind.

Each therapy visit or presentation lasts about an hour. The horse is critical to a successful visit, but so is the handler. "You have to read people well and gauge reactions, and like this kind of work," Ebert said.

After four years, she insists she gets as much out of the experiences as her audiences.

"When I walk in with the horses, people seem to come alive. There is literally light in their eyes that wasn't there before, and I go home feeling something really good happened."

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