CHICAGO — The three therapists in training each stand less than 30 inches tall. They wear Build-A-Bear toy sneakers and require daily stroking, grooming and belly rubs.
Turnabout, Mystery and Lunar are miniature horses who draw gasps of delight everywhere they go, but they are being prepared for serious work at a barn in Richmond, Ill.
The aim is to have them visit schools, hospitals and nursing homes once they’re approved by a national organization called Pet Partners, which will evaluate them for so-called animal-assisted activities and therapy. The horses’ owner, Jodie Diegel of Palatine, Ill., recently received nonprofit status for this new venture, Mane in Heaven.
She is now seeking volunteers to help.
“There is so much emotion that is present with these animals,” said Diegel, a registered nurse who has used her golden retriever and yellow Labrador to provide therapy for years. “When you first see them, you are like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ”
Small children stand at eye level with the horses, who are gentle and calm. The animals also sport incredibly long eyelashes.
Volunteers ages 14 and older are needed to help desensitize the “minis” through play and grooming at the Richmond barn, Diegel said. By spring, she hopes to have additional handlers willing to take the horses to visit children and adults with emotional, mental or physical disabilities.
Carol Ouhl, of Cottage Grove, Minn., who has evaluated animals for Pet Partners for 20 years, explained that the handler and the animal are assessed separately, then given a single score.
An animal might score high on criteria like temperament and obedience, for instance, but its handler may need improvement, she said.
“We put a lot of emphasis on being proactive, knowing what your animal likes or dislikes and doing what it takes to circumvent any problem,” Ouhl said.
Pet Partners defines “animal-assisted activity” as a casual meeting in which animals and volunteers visit with people for recreational purposes. “Animal-assisted therapy,” by contrast, is led by a licensed health care professional who helps a client work toward meeting specific medical goals.
“In a visiting situation, the animals are a catalyst or bridge to a conversation. It gives people something to focus on other than their problems,” Ouhl said.
The biggest challenge for the miniature horses is to learn to walk and stand still on command while ignoring any outside noise, ear tugs or other distractions, Diegel said.
She said the minis have made great progress since she purchased them in February from a Wisconsin breeder.
Turnabout, age 1, a dark brown male, is the most spirited of the three, kicking up his heels during playtime in an indoor ring.
Lunar, 4, is a mellow chestnut-colored female with thick blond eyelashes and a matching mane. Like Turnabout, she weighs at least 200 pounds.
Mystery, 1, is the smallest of the three, at about 100 pounds. She is gray with a tail so long it nearly touches the ground.
Diegel and other volunteers spend time with the horses daily, petting them, talking softly to them, rubbing their bellies, tugging their ears, and removing and replacing their doll-size sneakers. The Build-A-Bear shoes not only look adorable, but also are necessary when the horses enter a building such as a hospital, Diegel said.
“They stop them from slipping on the floor,” she said. “It is like an ice rink to them.”
The horses made their debut last fall, when they participated in a public event sponsored by Main Stay Therapeutic Riding, also in Richmond. Main Stay offers equine therapy with regular horses — and invites clients to visit a herd of small animals, including a miniature donkey, sheep, rabbits and miniature horses, said Loriann Dowell, executive director.
Grooming the animals helps youngsters with physical disabilities improve their range of motion, she said. People with social and emotional problems also connect with the animals, she added.
“Our herd of small animals are unique in that they are all rescued animals and they all have stories,” Dowell said. “That is really helpful for these kids because they can relate to them.”
The diverse herd lives in harmony, presenting a model for children on getting along with others who are different, she said. The barnyard environment contributes to the therapeutic effect, she said.
“I myself go out there with this small herd,” Dowell said. “These sheep and goats, they come up to you and they look right into your soul. It’s pretty amazing.”