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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Miniature horses delight Wichita second-graders

By Diane McCartney
The Wichita Eagle

The second-graders in Karen Palmateer’s class at Kelly Liberal Arts Academy were the rock stars of the day, being rewarded at a “Friday Surprise” event for having the best on-time attendance at the southwest Wichita school.

But much of the attention was turned toward Spud and Tucker, two miniature horses owned by school social worker Gail Kelly.

“This one’s Spud and that one’s Tucker,” Kelly told the students as they petted the pint-size horses, brushed them, and attached colorful daisies and bright streaming accessories to their fluffy manes.

“Spud is younger, almost 2, and Tucker is almost 3. They like to be groomed and they love grass, as you can see. … They love attention and they’re very interested in anything and everything.”

The kids love the little horses, their teacher said. “They’re the highlight of this whole activity,” which also included chalk drawing, bubble blowing and a horseshoe toss, Palmateer said. It was her class’ first time winning the weekly award, and “they’ve worked really hard for this,” she said.

Kelly was betting that the kids at her school would love miniature horses, which stand no taller than 34 inches at the withers, or last hairs of the mane. She fell in love the first time she saw a photo of one, and set about finding some extra-small ones that she could share with students, especially those in special education. She found two horses that were headed for auction in South Dakota, and the owner drove them to Kansas.

“From the minute they jumped out of the truck, they just completely stole my heart,” said Kelly, who lives between Andover and Rose Hill. “I just couldn’t believe how adorable they are.”

The horses turned out to be as lovable as they were cute – “very trusting and just so personable and curious,” she said.

She asked her principal, Brian Huffman, if she could bring the horses to school to meet with Circle of Friends, a group of children who form friendships and do activities together, and he said OK.

The horses “walked right into the school, to the courtyard, and the kids were surprised,” Kelly said. “I’d showed them pictures, but they almost didn’t really believe they were going to be so small. They immediately interacted with them and loved them.”

Another class noticed the horses and asked to pet them, then another. Soon there was a line circling around the playground.

“The kids were so good, they lined up and took turns petting them,” Kelly said. “And the horses stood there soaking up the love.”

Some schools have therapy dogs or other animals that reside at the school or visit on a regular basis, but that’s not the case at Kelly, said Huffman, the principal. Gail Kelly’s horses, which aren’t certified therapy animals, have visited several times, he said, and they’re “a real treat for the kids.”

Many children in Wichita have never seen a horse, Huffman said, “and if they have, they haven’t seen a miniature horse. They get pretty excited about it.”

Alisia Aguirre, a fifth-grader at Kelly who was helping with the horses last week, said she had ridden full-size horses at carnivals but liked Spud and Tucker because “they’re small and they’re cute.” While her favorite was Tucker, the pudgy horse with the brown-and-white, wavy hair, Tailor Kelty, another fifth-grade helper, preferred blue-eyed Spud, because “he’s really soft” and a bit taller than Tucker, “ ’cause my dad’s very tall.”

Tucker is 28 inches tall, and Spud is 30 inches, Kelly said. Most of the horses that spectators can see at this weekend’s Heartland Classic Miniature Horse Show at the Kansas Pavilions are 32 to 34 inches tall. They will compete in events such as jumping, pulling carts and navigating obstacles.

Kelly’s passion for sharing her horses with others has expanded into a business, Huggable Horses, which has a page on Facebook. For $35 for a one-hour visit, plus mileage, Kelly takes Spud and Tucker to children’s parties, picnics and other family events.

Huggable Horses is more of a hobby than a business, Kelly said. “I would love to call it a business but my husband says, ‘Gail, this is a hobby. You are never going to make money.’ ”

What she enjoys most about the gentle little horses is the joy that they seem to bring to others.

“When I take them to a party, usually there are three generations there, and everybody’s happy,” Kelly said.

Reach Diane McCartney at 316-268-6593 or dmccartney@wichitaeagle.com.

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