Smile Politely

Miniature horses: A new way of instilling hope

When one thinks of the therapeutic role animals play, it is usually in the context of a dog, cat, or maybe a rabbit. But miniature horses? Deb Murphy, director of MiniVisits in Fisher, IL, used her 30 years of experience in special education and passion for horses to create a new and powerful way of helping individuals. Five miniature horses (“Minis”) change the lives of each person they interact with through their peaceful demeanor and infamous short stature. Whether it’s standing silently while children practice their reading skills at local libraries, inspiring youth with special needs to understand the importance of patience and compassion, or reviving lost memories at elderly communities, these horses bolster confidence and faith.

Taking the first step towards mental and/or physical healing can be a challenging endeavor. Some may need extra assistance to initiate this introspective questioning of themselves and their surroundings. Working with the miniature horses of MiniVisits allows one to begin this rejuvenating journey in a safe and accepting environment. The horses are trusting and relaxed with each visit no matter what the setting, or who they are interacting with.

For years, Murphy and her horses have been frequent visitors at residential centers for children. Through the months of April to November, the minis’ weekly visits motivate the children to practice setting goals, responsibility, and patience. During my visit at MiniAcres, Murphy told me a story of one participant, a teenage girl, who was petrified of horses. After each visit with the horses, the girl would set a personal goal for herself. At first, simply reaching out and poking one of the minis, Star, was enough. Then, after learning that she was in a safe atmosphere, the girl began to place her trust in Star and what started as hesitant touches evolved into reading stories to Star. Months later, Murphy recalls a moment where she caught Star and the girl sitting forehead to forehead, both of them falling asleep.

Encouraging the children to observe the minis’ behavior has allowed Murphy, special recreational therapists, and special education teachers to establish a link between the horse’s attitude and the child’s. For instance, when a participant is training a mini and it stops listening due to fatigue, instead of getting anxious or angry, the teachers will encourage the child to stop and reflect on the present situation. This safe and simple introspection supplies the children with opportunities to question their actions and practice both patience and acceptance.

Furthermore, the participants quickly learn that in order to work with the minis, they need to decrease their energy level and listen to their instructors. Tasks such as training, walking, and grooming gives the children a sense of pride and increases their self-esteem as they undertake these responsibilities. “This is the first time a lot of these kids are put in a leadership position, and for some, the first time that they show true compassion and kindness towards a living being.” Murphy explains, “these horses are so accepting and trusting of everyone. They have no reason to be afraid.”

Murphy has also seen life-changing improvements with individuals that are living with trauma, physical limitations, and mental disabilities. Her appearances range from hospice visits for patients and/or their families to specialized camps. A few camps that the minis have visited include Camp Healing Heart at Allerton, sponsored by Carle Hospice Program, and the YMCA’s summer camp for youth that have survived a stroke. At the YMCA camp, Murphy and the counselors encourage the boys and girls to use their affected limb when working with the minis. This includes putting on and taking off the horse’s harness, leading the horse around an enclosed area, and assisting with brushing and tying ribbons in the horse’s hair. All of these tasks give the children a strong sense of accomplishment and pride. The calm and accepting environment instilled by the horses allows participants to go at a speed they are comfortable with so they will not feel embarrassed or ashamed.

In addition to working with mentally and physically challenged participants, Murphy and her miniature horses make frequent visits to assisted living facilities. There, the senior citizens are encouraged to exercise and preserve dexterity through walking on leads, petting, and brushing the horses. Working with minis has also rekindled lost memories in many senior citizens. Murphy told a story that stood out in particular: during a visit to Bridle Brook with a few of her horses, she noticed an elderly man who was especially reticent. She sat next to the man with one of her minis, Rascal, a yellow tinted horse with one black eye and one blue. Immediately, Rascal took an interest in the man. “He went right up to him and kind of put his nose on the man’s shoulder and gently nuzzles his cheek”, Murphy says, “I looked at the man and said, ‘you had horses didn’t you?’ The man nodded, put his arm around Rascal, and began to cry.” 

The minis make yearly appearances in the Annual Autism Awareness Walk in Champaign, showing up a few hours beforehand to allow participants to pet and be with the horses, as well as in the Fisher Christmas parade. Their participation in the “Read to the Minis” program at the Champaign Public Library was also a wild success with an estimate of 300 people. Murphy is always looking for ways to expand the minis’ influence: “I created this place,” she explains, referring to her barn and pasture, “to share the horses with other people.” Since creating MiniVisits 14 years ago, Murphy has seen the minis continuously “work their magic”. Children with problematic and disruptive behaviors were suddenly calmed and displayed tenderness towards the minis, teenagers and adults suffering from extreme depression felt hope, and elderly who never thought they would touch a horse again did. Murphy’s five minis welcome every opportunity to provide mental and physical healing, and their ability to fully trust the humans they interact with is awe-inspiring. 

Murphy’s next community event, “Read to the Minis,” is at the Urbana Free Library, on June 4th at 3 p.m.

You can find out more about MiniVisits at their website.

Photos by Nicole Schimmel and from

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