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Mini therapy horses bring Joy where needed most

Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses on stage at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts from a previous year. The event this year is December 10, 2017.

-Photos Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

Therapy horse Magic visits a young patient in intensive care at the Children’s Hospital at Erlanger in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
-Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

Therapy horse Takoda giving and getting some love from a patient at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital. -Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

By Tami Stevenson

Wherever you find them, these highly trained, almost fairytale-like tiny creatures have a huge impact everywhere they go. Imagine a three foot tall, real-live horse stepping off the elevator on the ninth floor of an oncology unit at a hospital (like it was nothing) wearing a tuxedo with glitter in their hair (manes and tails), going in hospital rooms among the sensitive medical equipment with hoses attached to patients, bells ringing, etc., visiting children and adults alike. This is just another day to these little guys from Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses. They touch the hurting in a profound way, leaving behind a ray of sunshine in the aftermath of tragedy. Whether it is a life-threatening diagnosis from doctors, natural disasters or survivors of shooting victims, this 501(c)(3) nonprofit, all volunteer organization, based in Columbia County, Florida, visits more than 25,000 people each year throughout the nation. Sadly, many locals say they have seen the horses on TV but did not realize they are based right here in North Florida.

During the holidays they do a lot of work with foster children and nursing homes. Yesterday, as this story was being written, they were in a parade for special needs children then visited the private home of a child with stage four cancer. They had been working with this child for over a year. Doctors told them the child would not make it to Christmas but they are not giving up hope.

On December 10, 2017, at 4:00 p.m. they will be in Gainesville at the Stop Children’s Cancer concert at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Earlier that day they will be visiting foster children in the Gainesville area.

Founder Jorge Garcia-Bengochea, along with wife Debbie, are in their twentieth year working with the miniature therapy horses.

Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses are not only nationally acclaimed, they have been featured in magazines and talked about around the world, from Australia to Russia for the unique work they do.

The most highly acclaimed horse in the group is Magic. Nine year old Magic and her friends have comforted survivors and first responders of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT,  the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL. She has also helped the tornado survivors of Moore, OK, victims of the fires in Gatlinburg, TN, child trafficking victims in Washington, D.C., families in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and thousands of patients in children’s and veterans hospitals across the country. She even helped Gentle Carousel teach a class on therapy horses at Columbia Medical School.

Therapy horse Magic works with speech, occupational and physical therapists at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital
-Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

Magic has been featured in Time Magazine, Women’s World, National Geographic Kids - appeared on the Today Show in New York and numerous television news broadcasts all over the country, CBS, CNN, PBS and FOX. She visited the 23rd floor of the Capitol building in Tallahassee and met Congressman Ted Yoho in his office. She is featured in “The Book of Heroes” by National Geographic in November of 2016, named one of History’s 10 Most Courageous Animals in TIME Magazine and so many other awards and honors too numerous to mention in this article. Magic is also a Deputy with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and works in high crime neighborhoods with children.

All of this could not have happened without her partner and trainer who raised her from birth.

“Jorge is a natural with animals, the horses trust him,” co-founder Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, an educator and former school principal who now serves as the organization’s director of education, told the Suwannee Valley Times recently. She explained when the horses go into a hospital or a private home, for instance, they don’t get a trial run. Sometimes there are a lot of cameras, or other commotion and sounds and circumstances like helicopters, sirens and flashing lights. They make it look easy but the horses have to trust their handler to be able to go in, go up the elevators filled with other people, where the floor feels like it drops out underneath you. She said, “Sometimes you’ll see the horses kind of look at Jorge, like, ‘Are we good?’ If he says it’s good - they’re good.” Plus the horses are all house trained. The horses are potty trained. Each horse goes through a two year basic training program and continue to learn from there.

Charity founder and head trainer Jorge Garcia-Bengochea on the Gentle Carousel farm with Therapy horse Magic. -Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

The horses have to feel safe and happy doing what they do. It’s not just that they feel safe and stand there but they have to want to interact with people and enjoy what they do. She said, “We don’t train certain behaviors because we want it to be natural. We want people to feel like if that horse chooses you and walks up to you and lays their head in your lap, that it’s real. And it is real.”

She added they do not teach the horses tricks. A lot of the things you don’t see or notice is what they train. When they are around people in a wheel chair, many times they are barefoot or have only stockings on their feet. The horses are trained to stand back and reach their necks forward so they don’t step on anyone. “So there’s certain things we teach, but the actual interaction is pure and real.” She said.

After working with them for twenty years the Garcia-Bengocheas have seen where the horses really seem to sense how people are feeling.

Therapy horse Scout going for a ride on the Gentle Carousel farm. -Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

One account she shared is about a woman in Ocala at an assisted living home. They took three horses in and Magic went over to this woman that just started laughing and smiling and was saying,

“Look it’s a horse, it’s beautiful.” They didn’t think anything of it, but the staff was crying. It turned out that she had not spoke in years. No one there had ever heard her voice since she had been there. She kept talking after that.

There was one little boy that had been in the hospital his whole life. He was six years old and near his end of life. He had never been home for the holidays, never been to a ball park and wanted to be with the horses so the doctors hooked him up with his oxygen and everything so he could be with them and he was laughing and hugging them and taking photos. When they were getting ready to leave his mother said, “We’ve never had a happy day. Now we will always have a happy day.”

“We were at a camp for children with cancer. The horses visited everybody but Magic kept going back to this little boy, and horses are very intuitive, even with each other in their pasture. She put her forehead on his forehead and they were both with their eyes closed, the boy and the horse for nearly five minutes, and they didn’t move, which is not normal for a boy or a horse. Somebody came up to him and said there is going to be a magic show inside and he said, ‘I’m having my own Magic show.’ It turned out, the nurses were all kind of pointing and looking, and we never know when we go in, we have no information, and it turned out he had just found out that morning his cancer had come back. So somehow the horse picked up from him and they just had a time together.” She added, “Sometimes that is all you can do. It’s the things you find out later you didn’t know sometimes that are like little miracles.” Horses love unconditionally, it doesn’t matter what football team you root for, how much money you have or what color you are. They seem to sense how people are feeling.

Therapy horse Sweetheart with a young friend at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of North Central Florida. -Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

They also have beautifully animated short-story books featuring the horses in the story that talk about kindness and other things that help children cope with tragedy. Imagine reading a book about a horse and having the real-life one standing in front of you. That is what happens when they visit libraries like the Jo Kennon Public Library in Dowling Park at Advent Christian Village or the Branford Public Library where children waited with anticipated joy for the tiny horses to make their appearance.

The horses are multi generational therapy horses at this point, according to Garcia-Bengochea. They have a stallion who’s temperament is perfectly suited for their needs. She said they actually take the babies with their moms to the hospitals to train before they are weaned. They are learning from the day they are born and love all the attention. “Their mothers trust us completely. We are able to take them indoors right away, able to put them on different surfaces and start introducing them to different noises.” The life span of a miniature horse is well into their 30’s. They also have two Maremmas - giant white dogs that were donated by a nearby breeder that now live with and protect the horses, along with a miniature donkey.

Therapy horse Magic at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital on New Year’s Eve. -Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.

They do not charge to visit anyone, whether it is a library, a hospital or even a private home to fulfill someone’s last wish to see and touch a horse again, for example. They depend solely on donations. Many times the Garcia-Bengocheas pay out of their own pockets, but it all works out in the end and they have been able to continue.

She admittedly is not good at fundraising but somehow they have managed to keep going. “We just go month to month. That turned into year to year. Now we look back and it’s been 20 years,” she exclaimed.

One thing they really would like to have - and need - is a mini-van. When they go with a big horse trailer to hospitals in big cities or when they were called by the medical examiners office for the shooting in Orlando, for instance, parking is a huge issue. They sometimes have to park a long way from their destination because of the horse trailer. Then they have to walk through traffic with the horses, which can be dangerous. If they had a mini-van, it could be modified with actual tiny stalls for the horses (they normally take two horses) and could park so much closer.

For more information about Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, visit their website at or or call 352-226-9009.

Therapy horse Magic making a new friend. -Photo Courtesy of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.