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Natural Awakenings - Alachua, Citrus, Marion, Sumter Co & The Villages, FL

Miniature Therapy Horses Are Just What the Doctor Ordered

May 01, 2020 10:42PM ● By Nancy DeVault

Hospital patients don’t expect to see diminutive stallions strutting the hallways, but that’s become the norm throughout North Central Florida. Gentle Carousel miniature therapy horses visit 25,000 people each year at medical treatment sites, hospice centers, assisted living communities, veteran and first-responder facilities and even personal homes.


Now one of the largest equine therapy programs in the world, Debbie Garcia-Bengochea co-founded Gentle Carousel in Ocala more than two decades ago. At the time, therapeutic riding options were available at area farms, but the former school principal identified an accessibility gap.


“There were (and are) a lot of people who can’t get out to the horses, so we bring the horses to them,” she explains. While maintaining a strong local presence, Gentle Carousel now has a secondary farm in Tennessee, an affiliate site in Greece and conducts visitations nationwide. “When the elevator door opens and mini-horses walk out, no one is thinking about cancer or disease for a while,” she says. But creating such memorable distractions takes hard work.  


Through an intensive two-year preparation program, the tiny house-trained team learns how to navigate stairs, ride elevators, tolerate sounds (i.e., ambulance sirens and helicopters), maneuver tight spaces, interact with people with differing abilities and many more impressive tasks. The horses collaborate with doctors, therapists and other professionals to support survivors of stroke, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations, burns and other conditions requiring physical and emotional rehabilitation.


The horses have a way of easing tension in times of stress. “The horses don’t just visit people; they become a part of the treatment team,” asserts Garcia-Bengochea. For example, a person learning to walk again may feel less apprehensive when using a miniature horse as a crutch; and a patient healing from burns may not notice their pain as much when focused on combing a beautiful mane.


In other environments, the goal is purely horseplay. The Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida serves as a comfortable home away from home for families with children receiving care at medical facilities. Gentle Carousel’s horses have stomped through the house to the delight of residents and staff alike on a weekly basis for the past 15 years.  


“For one moment in time, our families can think about something other than their child being in the hospital and feel happiness and hope,” says Sherry Houston, Ronald McDonald’s executive director. “The horses are very intuitive, so they can engage with patients at their level.” Kiddos take the reins to guide horses around the butterfly garden and playful ponies also gallop from room to room receiving hugs fom those on bed rest.


These therapeutic interactions are much different than those of therapy dogs or companion animals. “A miniature horse uniquely brings joy and awe,” Houston says. A full-size horse can be intimidating, but the small statute of miniatures is welcoming for all.


On the other end of the age spectrum, the tiny team is welcome at assisted living facilities and senior centers. Garcia-Bengochea says horse visits are especially blissful for elders that either grew up in or worked in Ocala’s large equine community. Some seniors simply appreciate the “Wow!” factor of the costuming, props and music.


The petite squad currently includes 19 horses. Perhaps the most well-known of the herd, Magic, has proven that a blue ribbon isn’t the only equine distinction. Magic was inducted into the hall of fame of both the Florida Veterinary Medical Association and the United States Equestrian Federation/Equus Foundation. Producing a truly quixotic moment, Magic was the guest of honor at a tea party honoring a terminally ill 5-year-old girl. “Magic and two of equine friends arrived in their tuxedos, and the little girl’s cousins wore princess dresses,” recalls Garcia-Bengochea. “It was a chance to create a lasting happy memory for her and her family.”


Gentle Carousel also serves those affected by trauma. “The first time the [surviving] children from Sandy Hook Elementary saw each other after the shooting, Magic was there at the Newtown public library,” Garcia-Bengochea shares. “It was the beginning of their healing.” Gentle Carousel likewise helped after the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Pulse nightclub, in Orlando, the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma; fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and child trafficking incidents in Washington, D.C.


Gentle Carousel is also active in the community through literacy and kindness programs held at local libraries, schools and youth centers. During the coronavirus crisis, however, Gentle Carousel has transitioned to FaceTime chats and social media connections. More than half a million Facebook followers can watch Story Time on the Farm with Mr. Jorge, led by Jorge Garcia-Bengochea, co-founder and head trainer, alongside a horse. Gentle Carousel encounters are free of charge, but because of the pandemic, the organization’s annual fundraiser was canceled. Thus, to support the mission, donors can contribute monetary gifts and/or items listed on the charity’s Amazon Wish List.


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