By Lauren R. Giannini
During the recent tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy horses found themselves both the heroes and the victims. When disaster stuck, the little horses remained calm while founders Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea made a decision that would result in renewing hope to a town that had nearly lost everything.
“Gentle Carousel had been asked by the community to bring our therapy horses to Moore for the children who survived the destruction of their schools on May 20,” recalled Debbie. “We had just gotten back to the hotel when the news announced that the tornado that had been heading north turned around and was heading south again toward Moore. Who would think that an EF-5 tornado would hit the same place twice?”
Alerted by hotel staff that the best shelter they could offer was for guests to bunker down under their bed mattresses in the hallway, Debbie and Jorge opted to hit the road immediately with their horses. “Had we left two minutes later, we never would have gotten out of there,” Debbie said. “The tornado kept going – so much energy around it. It was two-and-a-half miles wide. All we saw behind us was blackness, smoke and accidents. Our horses weren’t bothered. They thought we were fine, doing one more unusual thing. We were stressed, the horses weren’t.”
After fleeing the tornado, Debbie and Jorge pulled over and waited until they lifted the roadblocks on the interstate back to Moore. “We had to go back for the children who had been attending funerals and who needed us. We promised that the little horses would be there again the next day, and we couldn’t go back on our word,” Debbie said.
When they returned to Moore they learned how lucky they were. The second five-in-one twister totally destroyed the farm where their horses had stayed and also resulted in severe damages to their hotel. That close encounter made Debbie and Jorge even more cognizant of the power of the therapeutic benefits of their Gentle Carousel horses.
Although Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy emphasizes that the organization does not chase disasters, they knew they needed to help the people in Oklahoma.“Going to Oklahoma really fit what our horses do,” Debbie explained. “People were homeless. There was so much sadness. Seven children had died and others were injured when the first tornado destroyed the two schools. Our horses bring joy and comfort to people who have suffered great loss. They feel encouraged, they’re excited and smiling, their parents are smiling. They go home with happier memories, plush toy horses and a photo of them with their therapy horse.”
The help offered by Gentle Carousel isn’t limited to towns that have been decimated by major tornados. Every year the 501(c) (3) non-profit charity’s miniature therapy horses work with more than 20,000 people. They visit hospitals, hospices, rehab centers and schools, as well as communities and families recovering from traumatic events.
When Gentle Carousel received requests to visit Moore in the aftermath of the EF-5 tornado that blasted that initial mile and a half wide swath, various volunteers discussed the calls with Debbie and Jorge. They all agreed that the importance of this road trip outweighed Gentle Carousel’s budget.
“We are an all-volunteer non-profit, and probably our greatest challenge is finances,” Jorge said. “We’ve been doing this for about 15 years, and our little horses are trained to go anywhere and give joy, inspiration and hope to people. But there are times when we have to consider the expenses of travel and lodging. We hadn’t planned on going to Oklahoma. We did it out of pocket, because we felt we had to be there. We wish we could accept every invitation, but sometimes we can’t.”
One invitation that Gentle Carousel didn’t turn down was the opportunity to work at the University of Florida Health Rehab Hospital (formerly Shands Rehab Hospital) in Gainesville, Florida. “It has been an interesting partnership,” Debbie admitted. “To get ready for the trip to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut we practiced at UF Health, including using the elevators. Our therapy horses can go into hospitals and rehab hospitals across the country – for many, it is their first encounter with therapy horses.”
Gentle Carousel’s horses bring joy wherever they go. This is especially true at UF Health where children and adults learn to cope with daily life after suffering strokes, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations, burns or major joint replacements. They practice everyday tasks in a room set up like an apartment with a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. The horses learn how to approach beds, move around on different floor surfaces and work in small areas.
Sometimes horses and patients practice at the same time on the steps and ramps in the therapy gym. The horses might walk alongside patients as they learn to use walkers and wheelchairs. In occupational therapy, learning to perform everyday skills like cooking can involve patients making special treats for the therapy horses. The blessings the patients receive from the horses are not only educational, but inspirational as well.
“We’ve always felt very blessed. After we survived Moore’s second tornado, we know that we are also very lucky,” said Debbie. “Someone in Oklahoma told us that God looks after his angels, and we do think the Gentle Carousel therapy horses are little angels.”
For more information and to get involved visit horse-therapy.org.
Photos courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses
A Magical Book – Magic Loves Me
Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, a former school principal, wrote a children’s book about Magic, one of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, to read to children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Magic Loves Me is about how Magic loves friends facing different kinds of challenges. Many children have asked to keep the book, but Gentle Carousel has only the one copy.
“We would love to be able to give the book to the children – we have used Magic Loves Me to help children who need desperately to heal,” said Debbie. “It will cost around $5,000 to publish, but we need help meeting the printing costs.”
The demand for Magic Loves Me would exceed the supply in no time, considering how many people Gentle Carousel helps annually. Debbie pointed out that “sponsorship on the local and national level would be a godsend to keep the little book in print.”