Tiny therapy horses don’t judge, help cope
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.
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.