By April Leonard
For twenty one year old Jennifer Anfinsen, American Miniature Horses are much more than just cute pets – they are a way of bringing joy, love and comfort into the lives of people in need. Jennifer volunteers her time to use miniature horses as a means of therapy for special needs children, hospice patients, residents of retirement homes and many others.
In 2008, Jennifer and her mother met Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, who was tutoring Jennifer’s sister. Debbie runs a volunteer based charity called Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, in Gainesville, Florida, near Jennifer’s home. Gentle Carousel brings miniature horses to a variety of places including schools and hospitals with the goal of brightening the day of the people there. The program began in 2002 and now works with an astounding 18,000 children and adults each year.
As Debbie spoke about the program, the idea of using horses for therapy immediately sparked Jennifer’s interest. Jennifer had grown up riding horses and had competed in hunter shows and also enjoyed trail riding. “For me, it is therapy to go down to the barn,” Jennifer said. It made perfect sense to her to bring horses to people who could not go to a barn themselves so they could also experience the therapeutic power of horses.
Jennifer’s volunteer position at Gentle Carousel includes helping with the training of the miniature horses and handling them during therapeutic visits. Training the minis for visits involves getting them used to lots of people being around and desensitizing them so they will not easily spook. Her favorite mini to work with is a mare called Wakonda, a naturally shy mini who took quite a while to develop the “therapy horse personality” that Gentle Carousel strives for. Jennifer says that the sweet, trusting horse has really come a long way since they first began working with her. Wakonda now excels at bringing smiles to the faces of the people they visit.
Aside from training the minis, Jennifer and her mother also house and care for seven of Gentle Carousel’s 26 miniature therapy horses. Her mother is in charge of making the costumes that the minis wear on therapeutic visits to nursing homes, schools or libraries, so the seven living with them stand in as models for frequent costume fittings.
At libraries, the minis – and even Jennifer – dress in costume to act out stories to encourage children to read. Dressing in costume has been a challenge for Jennifer; but it has really helped her to overcome her shyness and open up. “Costumes are a new thing for me; but I’m getting used to it,” she said. When dressed in a sock hop outfit at a retirement home, many residents excitedly told her, “I used to have a skirt just like that!” Other costumes that this willing volunteer has worn include a princess outfit and a cowgirl outfit. “Just last week, I was Thing One!” she admits. “I put on a blue wig and everything.”
What would motivate a busy college student who doesn’t like calling attention to herself to put on crazy costumes and devote so much time to miniature horse therapy? “I enjoy it. It’s unusual and it’s fun. It makes me happy to see someone else happy,” Jennifer explained. There is a more personal reason for her work, as well. “I have a special needs sister and she really enjoys it.” Jennifer’s sister accompanies Gentle Carousel on their therapy outings and the two sisters love spending time together bonding over something that they both enjoy — miniature horses.
Jennifer has had many highlights during her work with Gentle Carousel; but one special highlight was visiting the Sidney Lanier School, the school her sister attended before she graduated. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen people happier to see miniature horses,” she said. Another experience that stands out in her mind is a visit to a young boy named Joseph who suffered from Pompe, a rare form of muscular dystrophy. During the visit, Jennifer couldn’t tell if the boy was enjoying himself or not because his expression wasn’t easy to read. About a week later, Gentle Carousel received a letter from Joseph stating that their visit had been one of the best moments of his entire life. “I’ve got goose bumps right now thinking about it,” Jennifer said. It’s moments like these that show her how much her volunteer work is really making a difference in the lives of people in need.
About the writer: April Leonard is spending the summer as an intern for Sidelines Magazine before beginning her senior year of college. She is working toward a degree in Equine Business Management at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, New York.