Tiny ther­apy horses don’t judge, help cope

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY WHITNEY BRYEN

Res­i­dents at the Sul­phur Veter­ans Cen­ter flock to the au­di­to­rium to see the spec­ta­cle — a horse, they were told, would be vis­it­ing the cen­ter.

Reba, who is not quite 28 inches tall, marched in wear­ing an Amer­i­can flag vest and com­bat boots made for dogs since the ones from Build-A-Bear Work­shop were too big for her tiny hooves.

“Some of our res­i­dents grew up on farms and started rem­i­nisc­ing about the past when they saw her,” said Jenny Nor­ton, one of the cen­ter’s re­cre­ation ther­a­pists. “I was hear­ing sto­ries that af­ter 17 years of work­ing here, I’d never heard be­fore. It was pretty amaz­ing.”

Reba is one of 13 minia­ture ther­apy horses that have been sooth­ing pa­tients ev­ery week­end for the past year at nurs­ing homes, hos­pi­tals and veter­ans cen­ters across the state.

Noble res­i­dents Diana Wells and Kelly King launched the non­profit Flames to Hope last sum­mer af­ter King and her hus­band bought their first minia­ture horse, Trig­ger, as a com­pan­ion for their don­key. Last sum­mer, King took Trig­ger to Noble’s an­nual Walk a Mile in Our Boots event, which raises aware­ness about vet­eran sui­cide, and the re­ac­tion was star­tling.

“We had him in a pair of cow­boy boots and peo­ple’s re­ac­tion to it was awe­some,” King said. “They loved him.”

King’s dad works at a nurs­ing home nearby, so they took Trig­ger to visit the res­i­dents and the re­quests came flood­ing in.

Horses have a unique abil­ity to un­der­stand and re­act to non­ver­bal cues be­cause they them­selves use mostly non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, King said. Be­ing around th­ese an­i­mals gives in­di­vid­u­als who have ex­pe­ri­enced phys­i­cal or emo­tional trauma in­sight into their own feel­ings, help­ing those in­di­vid­u­als cope, she said.

“Peo­ple feel safe around an­i­mals be­cause they don’t judge like hu­mans do,” King said.

Flames to Hope has taken over the 2.2-mile Walk a Mile in Our Boots event this year, which will be held Sept. 23 at Ken­neth L. King Park in Noble. Reba and some of the other minia­ture horses will be par­tic­i­pat­ing. All funds raised through the event will go to sup­port the non­profit.

One-year-old Reba has a shiny red dun coat with a white spot be­tween her eyes and is the star of the group. She is reg­is­tered as a ther­apy an­i­mal with Pet Part­ners and even has her own Face­book page called Reba the Mini Diva. She’s house­bro­ken and knows a few tricks like how to shake hands and salute.

The Sul­phur Veter­ans Cen­ter cares for about 120 veter­ans rang­ing in age from 30 to 96 who suf­fer from a va­ri­ety of phys­i­cal and men­tal ill­ness, in­clud­ing post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, Nor­ton said. Ther­apy an­i­mals pro­vide a morale boost for res­i­dents and staff, she said.

“I re­mem­ber one of the guys who doesn’t re­ally in­ter­act much with the other res­i­dents, but his face just lit up when he saw Reba,” Nor­ton said.

“I couldn’t be­lieve how he was in­ter­act­ing with her, and to see some­thing like that bring him out of his shell was pretty amaz­ing.”

Reba has been to the Law­ton/Fort Sill Veter­ans Cen­ter twice this year, and recre­ational su­per­vi­sor Teresa Aldridge is al­ready plan­ning an­other visit.

The minia­ture horses bring a sense of calm and joy to the cen­ter’s 200 res­i­dents, she said, at no cost to the fa­cil­ity.

The non­profit doesn’t just work with veter­ans, but a few spe­cific veter­ans did pro­vide the in­spi­ra­tion for Flames to Hope.

King’s daugh­ter, fa­ther-in-law, un­cle and hus­band, Ron King, are among the former mil­i­tary mem­bers who in­spired the pro­gram.

Ron King was a Marine for about 15 years and served in the Air Force for nearly six be­fore back and knee prob­lems forced him to re­tire.

“I don’t suf­fer from PTSD like a lot of guys do,” Ron King said. “But my dad, he was home­less for nine years be­cause of it and be­cause of men­tal ill­ness from Agent Orange.

“We don’t want that to hap­pen to any­one else,” he said. “We want peo­ple to know that hope isn’t lost, that some­one cares about them, and this is how we’re do­ing that.”

Minia­ture ther­apy horse Reba stands in the back of the mini van used to trans­port her and the other horses to and from Noble to nurs­ing homes, hos­pi­tals and veter­ans cen­ters across the state.

Flames to Hope co-founder Diana Wells walks Reba through an ob­sta­cle course that helps the minia­ture ther­apy horses ad­just to un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ments.

[PHOTOS BY WHITNEY BRYEN, FOR THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Reba, the star of Flames to Hope’s minia­ture ther­apy horse pro­gram, eats hay from a wagon with other horses from the pro­gram.

Kelly King, co-founder of Flames to Hope, shakes the hoof of her minia­ture ther­apy horse Reba.

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