Fluttering her long eyelashes, she held her composure while the Sumatran tiger held its stare.
Not even a tiger could make 1-year-old miniature horse Sweetheart act anything contrary to her name.
Maybe it was the protective glass, but the white, toy-like horse did not appear fazed by the more than 200-pound cat eyeing her.
Sweetheart and her sister Magic have returned to Gainesville after about two weeks of traveling with Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, a local nonprofit. The team of horses brings its tiny hooves into hospitals and hospices each year to comfort children and adults.
While on their first multi-state children’s hospital tour of the year, the two horses were invited to visit Zoo Atlanta to act as stand-ins for service animals.
The horses visited the zoo to provide consultation on how zoo animals would react to service animals and how service animals would maneuver around the zoo.
During their zoo visit, the horses saw twin baby pandas and komodo dragons and rode on the carousel, said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, co-founder of Gentle Carousel.
“They were the same size as the little carousel horses,” she said. “Our horses do much more than horses around the world would do.”
The horses walked around the zoo with the zoo veterinarian and videographer.
Garcia-Bengochea said it was the first time horses had been allowed to walk in the zoo.
The nonprofit’s miniature horses are famous around the world for their help in times of tragedy.
Garcia-Bengochea said often, sick children have never seen a horse before.
“A lot of the cases, it will be the only horses they ever touch,” she said.
In 2013, the therapy horses were brought to Moore, Okla., to comfort victims of the May tornado.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the horses were invited to come and help ease the pain for residents of Newtown, Conn. With the blessing of a 6-year-old victim’s parents, a Gentle Carousel miniature horse was given her name: Catherine Hubbard.
Gentle Carousel’s outreach doesn’t end in the U.S. The nonprofit has taken the therapeutic horses overseas. The organization opened up a branch in Greece to help children in hospital care and orphanages.
Garcia-Bengochea said the horses’ training at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital has greatly helped in preparing them for their travels. At the hospital, the horses have been used for everything from helping patients retake their first steps to encouraging burn victims to stretch by reaching to touch the animals.
“We’ve seen a lot of little miracles there,” she said.
The organization has 27 miniature horses in training for its therapy program.
Andrea Gilbert, staff occupational therapist at the UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital, uses the horses to work with some of her older patients. Gilbert said having the horses at the hospital instantly brightens up the patients and “helps them forget their pain for once.”
“Gruff, grumpy old men can’t help but break out into a smile and reach out to touch the little creatures,” she said.
To get an early start on training, the baby horses are brought into the hospital with their mothers. When Sweetheart was about 8 weeks old, she was brought to the hospital.
“She would lay her head in people’s laps,” Garcia-Bengochea said. “She had hearts shaped on her hips when she was born.”
While the other horses get back to helping people in therapy, Sweetheart and Magic will be taking a short vacation after their tour.
“They’re like little rock stars,” Garcia-Bengochea said.
[A version of this story ran on page 3 on 3/18/2014 under the headline "Gainesville mini therapy horses take trip to Zoo Atlanta"]
Miniature horse Sweetheart visits the Zoo Atlanta as a member of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses. The horses visited to provide information on how zoo animals react to service animals.