Derby-Based Nonprofit Offers Comfort Therapy With Miniature Horses
Kat Rodriguez grew up loving horses. She’s had her own horse for most of her life, and then about five years ago, she got hooked on miniature horses.
“I never thought I would enjoy the minis as much as I did until I got one, and they’re just so much fun,” Rodriguez says.
The Wichita resident has turned her passion for horses into a comfort therapy service, called Little Blessings Miniature Horse Therapy.
Rodriguez takes miniature horses to visit children and adults in hospitals, nursing homes, cancer centers, grief counseling centers, memory care facilities, assisted living facilities, rehab facilities, churches, schools and other settings.
Rodriguez did the therapy visits informally beginning in 2013; Little Blessings became a nonprofit organization in 2016.
The Little Blessings program is based at a farm just outside of Derby. Two pastures are set up in the back for Rodriguez’s two horses and three miniature horses. A newly constructed barn has small stalls and special equipment for the minis.
Rodriguez’s first mini was Merlin, a small black horse with lighter, sun-faded hair for his mane and tail. Patches of white fur are near his feet.
“Of the horses we have in our program, he is the smallest," she says. "We take the very end hairs of the mane and you measure to the floor. So, he’s 29 inches tall. For a mini, he’s exceptionally small."
Most minis stand about 32 to 34 inches tall, about the size of a Great Dane. Merlin is nine years old and weighs about 150 pounds. Rodriguez has five minis in her therapy service program.
“They’re just so cute, it’s hard not to baby them and just love all over them. But yeah, they really are my pets. They’ve come in my house before. Merlin’s been in my bathroom, getting ready,” she says.
On this day, she and volunteers Jann Pendry and Moises Rodriguez are getting Merlin ready for a visit to Wesley Children’s Hospital in Wichita. The bathing and grooming process starts hours before their appointment.
Merlin is cleaned head to hoof as part of the standards of care Rodriguez uses on each horse prior to a therapy visit. She uses a professional pet dryer to get the dust off Merlin before he is washed with shampoo and conditioner.
“Since he still has his winter coat, we are going to squeegee him with our hands and then we are going to towel dry him. Because he has such a thick coat, we may also blow dry him a little bit, then he can air dry,” Rodriguez explains as the group rinses Merlin.
Once Merlin is dry, he’s loaded onto a horse trailer for the short drive to Wesley.
The minis go through about six months of training and evaluations that include visits to public areas, stores and farms.
“We want to expose them to things that they might not encounter in a barn, so we take them on training visits just to make sure that our horse isn’t scared by a bicycle, an umbrella, a wheelchair or a tire,” she says.
As a nonprofit, Little Blessings doesn’t charge a fee for its comfort therapy service. It relies on donations for horse care, supplies and gas money. Rodriguez takes her minis on about 50 appointments a year, mainly in the Wichita and Derby areas.
At Wesley Children’s Hospital, Merlin and his entourage go in the main entrance and take the elevator up to the 5th floor. As they walk down the long hallways, doctors, nurses, staff — everyone — just smile and gush when they see the small black horse.
As they arrive at their destination, Rodriguez peeks into the children’s playroom.
“Can I come in and say hi?" she says. "This is Merlin!”
Four children are waiting in the playroom with parents and hospital staff. Most of the patients start petting Merlin immediately.
“What does his nose feel like?" Rodriguez asks the kids. "Is it soft?”
One girl begins braiding Merlin’s mane as a boy and a little girl brush his back. Wesley’s Childlife Specialist Casey Carr says pet therapy visits help young patients cope with the hospital environment.
“So typically, some of the kids are so sad or just not coping well with being here that they miss being home or they’re just hurting too much that they don’t even want to the out of bed," she says, "so this a lot of times is just a good incentive to get them to even walk down to the playroom."
During the half-hour visit, other patients come into the playroom to see Merlin. Carr knows these short interactions make a difference in children’s recovery.
“Seeing them smile for the first time all day long is amazing,” she says.
You can't help but smile when Merlin starts to "play" a small piano keyboard with his nose as he hunts for treats on the keys.
Merlin entertains the patients for a few more minutes and then, it's time to go.
Kat Rodriguez is balancing the miniature horse therapy program with a fulltime time job and a family. She has a roster of 10 to 15 volunteers who help with the program throughout the year, but she needs more to keep up with the growing requests for visits.
For now, Rodriguez says the simple joy that the horses bring to people of all ages is enough to keep her serving the community.
“What I tell myself is that we’re not going to take their pain away," she says, "but we can make them enjoy the moment that they’re in and maybe help think about something else for a little while."
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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