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Just What the Doctor Ordered

Mighty mini therapy horses bring joy and smiles during the pandemic.

Goldie was quiet in the back row of the Ford Expedition, making almost no noise on the drive to Montrose Memorial Hospital, aside from occasional chewing.

In the parking lot, he stepped out of the car, waiting patiently for his entourage to begin preparing him, like a celebrity waiting for a makeup artist.

He stood calmly as his chaperone placed bunny ears on his head, securing them with binder clips. She wrapped long strands of blue and yellow tinsel, adorned with Easter bunnies, around his body, and made sure his feet were wiped clean. Strands of loose hair flew off in the breeze as she brushed him.

She clipped Goldie's credential, an ID badge with a photo and his name, to a backpack, the last step before setting off across the parking lot. His first and only sign of hesitation came at the automatic sliding doors, where he stutter-stepped skittishly before stepping through the hospital doors. He showed no hesitation at the elevator, and calmly followed her through the hallways.

He waited again outside the door as she knocked, quietly calling into the hospital room. "Would you like to see the mini therapy horse?"

Most of the time, the answer was yes, mixed in some cases with disbelief from those who were clearly second-guessing their eyes, which saw a horse dressed up as the Easter Bunny wandering the hospital. This is par for the course when Manette Steele and her miniature horses visit health care facilities, as they have done throughout the pandemic. Steele, determined to continue bringing joy to others with her diminutive creatures, decided they were needed in some ways more than ever during this dark, uncertain time.

In one room at the hospital last week, a nurse turned around a man's wheelchair so he could face Goldie, holding his hand flat so the two-foot-tall horse could lick his palm. "Hi there, buddy," he said. "You're a good one." He sidled up beside a bed in another room, where a woman reached out to pet his long nose.
In the busy physical therapy gym, patients paused their exercises to see him. "I needed this today," Patricia London said, smiling beneath her mask as she resumed pedaling on the recumbent exercise bike.

Throughout the hospital, people stopped Goldie, taking photos and petting him. They asked the same questions, over and over. "How old is he? How long do they live? What's his name?"

Goldie was unfazed by the attention, which isn't unusual for him, as he remains calm when he's met with squeals of delight on his regular trips to hospitals and nursing homes. He joined Steele's Mighty Miniature Therapy Horse Program in 2018, after a decade as a family's beloved show horse.

Before the pandemic, Steele regularly visited more than a dozen healthcare facilities around the region, traveling as far as Grand Junction with the horses in a custom-built stall in the back of the SUV.

When the coronavirus prompted closures and visitation restrictions last spring, Steele couldn't imagine canceling indefinitely and keeping the horses at home. In May, she suggested starting outdoor visits bringing the horses up to the windows and doors of nursing homes. With many residents confined to their rooms to limit transmission of the coronavirus, "everybody's got to be so depressed," she said, so she started calling the facilities and offering to visit through the glass.

She pulled on a mask, dressed up the horses and set out to keep bringing smiles and "perking people up."
She's been allowed back inside at the hospital since June, though she's scaled back, visiting alone with just one horse, without any of the volunteers who often come with her.

Some of the nursing homes temporarily resumed outdoor visits with residents, while others are still paused, but she's got 18 facilities on her rotation list for when those trips can resume, she said, and a waitlist of more places requesting visits.

Like Goldie, Steele had a long career before starting the program in 2017, spending 23 years working in the corporate world for Oracle, one of the world's largest tech companies.

She spent the last few years of her software career commuting regularly to Missouri, where she found herself with time on her hands and began researching miniature horses, discovering groups around the world using them as therapy animals. She made plans to buy her first two horses, and was searching for the right vehicle to transport them when she was laid off. The severance package she received helped her kick off the program, and a month later, she'd formed the nonprofit and was lining up her first visits.

She now has six horses, who share stalls in her garage and a pen in her yard: Goldie, Sweet Dream, Yellow Rose of Texas, Glory, Ray of Hope and Red Miracle. She's best known for her visits to healthcare facilities, but Steele is also working to schedule visits to schools with the horses, where she talks about bullying prevention as part of a national program, "Just Say Whoa to Bullying."

She runs an Airbnb out of her home between Ridgway and Ouray, where travelers can meet and interact with the horses, which has helped support the non-profit; she also takes donations, and has received grant support from the Ouray Elks Lodge.

Before starting the program, "I was in the corporate world making a lot of people unhappy," she said as she walked down the hallway in the hospital. Now, her goal is to make people smile as much as possible, with the help of her herd.

It's a lesson she learned as a child, from visiting and caring for seniors in her church with her mother and sister, and fueled by seeing people light up when the horses enter the room. In the hallway at the hospital, a woman recognized Steele and Goldie immediately, from their visits to the nursing home where her daughter had lived. Another man hustled back to his room after seeing the horse, rushing to grab his phone to take a picture and send it to his kids.

"We do make a difference," Steele said, "if it's nothing but seeing people out of bed because the mini horses are coming today."

Some patients stand out from the last five years, especially those in memory care facilities. She tells the story often of a woman in a wheelchair at a Grand Junction nursing home, who showed Steele with one word that her visit was worth it, just by replying "yes" when asked if the horses were cute. Afterward, an administrator told her the woman had dementia and no one had seen her smile or speak since she arrived. The mini horse elicited the only facial recognition and emotion they had seen from her.

"People who can't remember their names still remember they like animals," she said. "Especially in this area, with all the people who were brought up on farms and ranches, it's sort of the perfect service."

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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

This story was written in partnership with the Ouray County Plaindealer, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.

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