Just one week after experiencing devastating loss, survivors of the Oklahoma tornado will be able to take comfort in special visitors from Gainesville: three miniature therapy horses.
The horses of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, a volunteer-based nonprofit charity, began their journey to Moore, Okla., in a truck and horse trailer.
The group will be in Oklahoma for about a week, said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, the education director of Gentle Carousel.
The organization was not planning to visit Oklahoma, she said, but less than two weeks after a group of horses returned from visiting Newtown, Conn., calls came pouring in from families, government officials and first responders in Oklahoma.
After the Oklahoma community proposed a therapy plan that would meet its needs, Gentle Carousel decided to make the trip. But Garcia-Bengochea said the team will also stay flexible to meet needs as they arise.
“Even though they’re setting up particular things for us, it’s all pretty fluid,” Garcia-Bengochea said.
The horses will visit a makeshift shelter set up in a college gym to interact with survivors, she said.
On trips, Garcia-Bengochea said, the horses typically dress up to visit families, sporting sparkles in their manes and tails.
She said she expects the horses’ visit to Oklahoma to help the healing process for individuals in the community.
One time, a child with a brain tumor asked to see a horse.
When the horse came into the child’s room, the child said, “She can see inside my soul.”
Gentle Carousel started about 15 years ago, originally working with severely abused children.
The charity has been mentioned in a Broadway show by Hugh Jackman, featured by CNN, USA Today and Time magazine, which named therapy horse Magic one of history’s top 10 most heroic animals.
Ocala, Lake City and Gainesville are home for the horses when the charity is not traveling.
In February, they paired up with UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital, said Andrea Gilbert, a Shands Rehab occupational therapist who set up the connection.
The partnership started on Valentine’s Day, and the horses’ first visit to the hospital was so successful it became a weekly occurrence, Gilbert said.
During their visits, Gilbert said, the horses help patients, and the patients help the horses.
“There’s a correlation between what our patients are going through and what the baby horses are going through,” Gilbert said.
While extensive planning goes into coordinating the horses’ long trips, Garcia-Bengochea said she finds the process well worth the effort.
“When you’re sick, to see a real horse — it’s a great thing,” she said.