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Mini Therapy Horses Bring Joy Wherever They're Needed

Courtesy Gentle Carousel

Debbie Garcia-Bengochea has seen it over and over again. The elevator doors open onto the oncology floor of a hospital, and out walks one of her impossibly cute miniature horses. There’s a pause. Then, everyone smiles. How can they not?

“At that point, nobody is thinking about chemotherapy anymore,” she says. “To see a horse make that happen is incredible.”

Courtesy Gentle Carousel

Jorge Garcia-Bengochea holding one of Gentle Carousel’s miniature therapy horses.

Garcia-Bengochea and her husband Jorge founded Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses 20 years ago. Their goal: to offer comfort during traumatic events via these tiny horses, which stand at roughly 27 inches and weigh between 100 and 120 pounds. Whether they’re visiting hospice patients, sick children, veterans or the first responders and victims of tragedies and natural disasters, the little animals bring big magic everywhere they go.

Courtesy Gentle Carousel

The Gainesville, Florida, couple first recognized the pint-size horses’ potential to ease suffering in a range of difficult circumstances in the late 1990s when working with a small group of at-risk youth in Florida’s Palm Beach County.

Today, the Garcia-Bengocheas estimate their 19 miniature therapy horses interact with more than 20,000 people each year. They’ve traveled all over the country in the wake of natural disasters and unthinkable tragedies, even consoling rescue workers and victims’ families after gun violence in Newtown, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; and Orlando, Florida.

Courtesy Gentle Carousel

Magic and Scout.

There’s Scout, a handsome brown and white boy, who does special work with veterans and children with autism. And there’s Rainbow, one of Gentle Carousel’s smallest but most determined horses, who has a knack for comforting particularly fragile patients. But it’s Magic, a striking blue-eyed black mini, who might be the most recognized of Gentle Carousel’s band of horses. She was named one of history’s 10 most courageous animals by Time magazine and declared the Most Heroic Pet in America by AARP.

The animals are taught how to engage meaningfully with the people who need them most. Garcia-Bengochea trains them to navigate stairs, walk on different surfaces, trot alongside wheelchairs or gently nuzzle faces. But she insists the best therapy animals demonstrate a natural empathy no trainer can instill.

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“These horses are born, not made,” she says. “They’ll often show interest in a certain person, so we follow their lead and allow it to play out. When someone feels chosen by a horse, it’s a special interaction.”

The horse may engage by placing his head on someone’s shoulder or in their lap, or by allowing a small child to lead him up and down a hallway. Mental health professionals agree these encounters can be therapeutic to those enduring traumatic or stressful situations.

“A unique component of a relationship with an animal is that it provides a non-verbal and sensory experience,” says Teri Wright Budner, a psychologist in Santa Ana, California, who specializes in animal therapy. “An animal can provide a sense of being important, that the individual matters to somebody.”

Garcia-Bengochea recalls a conversation with a young cancer patient’s mother, who tearfully explained how an interaction with one of the therapy horses gave the family a rare respite from the pain and grief of a difficult course of treatment.

“Sometimes you can’t fix things, but you can give someone a happy day,” says Garcia-Bengochea. “To watch these horses do that is one of the little miracles we get to see all the time.”

Courtesy Gentle Carousel

Dream at the Ronald McDonald House.

Each Wednesday night, Gentle Carousel brings a horse to the Ronald McDonald House of North Central Florida, where the families of children undergoing long-term treatments at nearby hospitals are able to spend time in the garden after dinner with the animal. Sherry Houston, executive director of the charity, says families look forward to each visit and the sense of normalcy it brings at the end of a stressful day.

“For one moment, they’re thinking about something other than treatment, something that brings them back to who they are,” says Houston. “These horses are so calming and intuitive. I always say it’s like they’re able to look into your soul. There’s just something unbelievably unique about them.”

Raring to Read

Courtesy Gentle Carousel

The Gentle Carousel horses love to get children excited about literacy through the Reading is Magic program in schools and libraries. Several of the mini therapy horses even mirror the characters in classic children’s books. Seeing those stories come to life with visits from a horse keeps kids engaged and eager to keep reading. Get more information at

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