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    A Little Help in Healing

    By Hollie Deese

    Photography courtesy of Gentle Carousel

     

    It’s hard to imagine anything cuter than miniature horses dressed up in tuxedos for a little girl’s tea party. But it was so much more than a lighthearted whim of a child; it was the final request of a little girl in hospice who just wanted a tea party with horses.

    And it was a wish made possible by the team at Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, an all-volunteer charity based in High Springs, Fla., founded more than 20 years ago by Jorge Garcia-Bengochea.

    Each year the horses work with more than 25,000 adults and children inside hospitals, hospice programs, and with families who have experienced traumatic events and with at-risk youth, all across the country. 

    For this particular wish, the horses came in their custom tuxedos and the girl’s cousins came in princess dresses, and for one day the entire family experienced pure joy.

    “Even though there can be challenges with it, it really is such a beautiful thing to be able to give someone a smile and a memory and happiness like that,” says Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, Gentle Carousel’s education director.

    The horses, which now number 19, go through a two-year training program where they learn to ride elevators, work in small patient rooms, and stay calm around unexpected sounds such as ambulances, alarms, and hospital helicopters. Individual horses work no more than two days a week.

    “They don’t just visit people,” Debbie explains. “They’re part of the treatment teams, so they work with the occupational, speech, and physical therapist, with the patients.”

    One reason they make such good therapy animals is because they are just so unexpected.

    “When you’re on the top floor of a hospital and the elevator doors open and little horses come out, it’s just this great moment,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether you are healthy or whether you are in hospice care.” 

     

    Making A Difference

    The mini horses have eased anxiety after the tragic shooting events that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and they comforted victims of the Gatlinburg, Tenn., fires.

    And that’s not counting the thousands of patients in children’s and veterans hospitals across the country not attached to a high-profile tragedy who have suffered strokes, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations, and burns.

    Founder Jorge’s longtime therapy horse Magic has a special relationship with children in hospital care. One boy losing his sight because of a brain tumor held Magic close to his face so he could always remember what she looked like. 

    Being at these places so soon after tragedy isn’t easy for the volunteers, but it is worth it to see the sense of joy on the patients’ faces from having the horse come and visit.

    “It takes them away from medical care and into something that’s beautiful,” Debbie says.

    Gentle Carousel’s horses also work inside schools and libraries, with mentoring programs, at literacy events, and at education resource centers in high-crime neighborhoods. Their literacy program, Reading Is Magic, encourages young readers with a special focus on at-risk readers.

    Services are provided free of charge and the charity receives no government funding. 

    “When you’re in a place where somebody’s lost their home or their school or whatever it is, and all of a sudden there are horses, the kids aren’t focused on what they’ve lost,” Debbie says. “They’re focusing on the fact there’s a horse in their room, and that’s sometimes all it takes is just to give somebody a little bit of a break.”