Bringing cheer with nickers and neighs
It was November of 2013, and little Mercy was going for her very first visit to an assisted living and memory care facility. Her ears perked high beneath her lacey pilgrim’s bonnet as she clopped alongside Wendi Threlkeld, her owner and handler, and another miniature horse, Goodness. As Mercy trotted inside, her blue eyes lighted on a little girl confined by paralysis to a wheelchair. Immediately, Mercy walked up and laid her head in the girl’s lap. The child’s eyes brightened with joy. The connection was so touching that many in the room, including the girl’s mother, felt tears in their eyes.
Wendi introduced Mercy to many other people that day, but Mercy kept returning to the little girl. As they were leaving, Stacy Scarborough, Marketing Director for Visiting Angels, said, “My heart is so full!” Wendi, so proud of her little Mercy, said, “She has set the bar real high!”
Since that day, Goodness and Mercy—sporting their Visiting Angels vests and festive costumes—have visited assisted living centers, nursing homes, rehab centers, hospitals, and smaller residential memory care homes on a regular basis, as well as attending town events. They are well-traveled and logging in even more miles!
Wendi’s own journey with miniature horses began a few years ago. With a journalism degree from Baylor and her Texas teacher certification through Texas State University, Wendi pursued graduate level research at Texas State University, studying how animals impact human learning and memory. She learned that using animals as an integral part of an educational experience simultaneously activated working memory and long-term memory, as well as other memory pathways, in the human brain. “Initial memories made with animals are so strong,” Wendi says, “that it makes sense that even when you’re losing your memory, those are the memories you can retrieve.”
But how could she ever own one? Her neighborhood did not allow any horses of any size. The answer became clear a few months later. Coming home from a day of teaching, she found her husband waiting with a special birthday surprise—a nine-month-old filly, a big turquoise bow sitting atop her tail, and her copper hair fluffed out against the brisk February breeze. And there was one more surprise. A good friend offered her unused barn and training pens as the miniature horse’s home. She also volunteered to share her equine training expertise. Now all that was left to do was name the filly. As soon as Wendi’s husband heard the name she chose—Goodness—he smiled nervously because “he knew that I wanted goodness and mercy to follow me all the days of my life.” In other words, a second horse was likely in their future!
Now it was time to begin training. First, Goodness needed to be desensitized—to learn to remain calm and relaxed in situations that would normally make her skittish. It was vital for Goodness to learn “to be still and allow people to mess with her.” Wendi adds that it’s important for the training to be a positive experience. Training should be fun and reinforced with healthy treats at the end. Along with desensitization, Goodness also became accustomed to wearing costumes, such as butterflies in her tail or bunny ears on her head. She also learned how to rear up and how to wave goodbye.
The pair continued hosting children’s events, and in 2013, Mercy joined the team. She was only about four months old when Wendi brought her home to meet Goodness for the first time. Wendi says, “Goodness put on quite a show. She walked around like she was ten feet tall and in a parade.” Apparently, Mercy was oblivious to the entire performance! But the two “bonded so quickly and fiercely,” says Wendi, “that we actually had to train them not to be so dependent on each other.” Wendi also began desensitization work with Mercy.
All of that training prepared the horses for a new adventure when Stacy, with Visiting Angels, met Wendi this past fall and discovered her work with Goodness and Mercy. Visiting Angels is an organization that provides elder care services to families, personalized to each individual’s temporary and long-term needs. Stacy says, “I thought seniors would love [seeing the horses], and a part of my job is visiting these places, so how much fun would it be to bring the horses along, too? It’s a way we can give back and bring joy.”
Since the fall of 2013, Stacy, Wendi, and Marla Woodard, another horse handler, have been taking Goodness and Mercy on visits twice a month. “The horses tromp into the memory care and rehab units wearing their Visiting Angels vests, and some patients react immediately with calls like ‘Hello, Gorgeous!’” Wendi says.
“Sometimes,” Stacy adds, “the patients think the horses are puppy dogs, which is okay. They just want to pet them.” Often, touching the horses triggers happy memories of pets they once had. Patients in the late stages of dementia often react positively to the touch of a horse, in ways as subtle as sitting up a little taller than they did before petting the horse. And when Goodness waves goodbye, Wendi says, “The people just melt.”
These little gals truly are miniwonders, bringing cheer and comfort to so many.
Miniature horses have a lifespan of 25 to 35 years. Goodness is 31 inches tall at the shoulders and weighs 250 pounds. Mercy, not yet full grown, is 26 inches tall at the shoulders and weighs 150 pounds. Wendi transports the two in a regular horse trailer but says, “Miniwonders is hoping to have a minivan one day to make local transports quicker and easier.”