When the residents of Alton Senior Living in St. Paul first saw the new brown-and white-spotted visitor walk into their bedrooms, they weren’t quite sure what to make of him.
“Wow, that’s a big dog.”
“Is that a cow?”
No, but that’s a little closer.
It was Little Joey, a miniature horse measuring in at a whopping 26 inches tall and 115 pounds.
“It’s pretty shocking for the residents to have a horse come walking into their room,” says Cindy Jacobson, an activities director at Alton. “But they just love them.”
Cookie, Little Joey, Coal and Rocket
Little Joey and his friends Cookie, Coal and Rocket are all miniature therapy horses working for Chaska’s Half-Pint Horse Foundation. They visit nursing homes, medical facilities, and libraries around the Twin Cities metro area, as well as star in the foundation’s kids’ camps each summer. “Our mission is promoting mental and physical healing, therapy and education through interaction with miniature horses,” says Allison Polster, founder and director of Half-Pint Horse Foundation.
Polster started the foundation in April 2011, after her daughter asked about keeping chickens in the backyard. Polster decided to do some research on backyard farm animals and stumbled upon miniature horses.
Often confused with ponies, miniature horses are their own species. While ponies are known for being mean and stubborn, miniature horses are bred specifically for their gentle temperament. Looks-wise, miniature horses are smaller (the American Mini Horse Association stipulates they must be no taller than 34-inches at the last hairs of the mane), and more to scale with a full-size horse than the stouter ponies, which often have larger hindquarters.
Polster, who had a longtime interest in helping the elderly, says something just clicked when she discovered the minis. “I wanted to get into doing something with the elderly and when we came across the mini horses, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” she says.
Chris, Allison and Teagan Polster, 12, work with the horses outside their Chaska stables.
She and her family bought their first two miniature horses—Cookie and Coal—in October 2010. With near to no experience with horses, they immersed themselves in life at the stables, reading books, watching videos and working with trainers.
Both former show horses, Cookie and Coal were relatively easy to train during a trust building regimen that involves running through balloons and hearing loud noises. Six months later, the nonprofit was ready to make its first visit.
Things started out slowly at first. Nursing homes and libraries were familiar with having dogs and cats around. But a horse? Not so much. “When we first started, we had to beg,” Polster says.
After a while, people slowly consented and invited the horses to visit on an outside-only basis. After seeing how small and calm the miniature horses were, it didn’t take long for doors to open up and the horses to be allowed inside. “When you say you’re going to bring a horse to the library, most people think you’re going to bring a really big horse,” says Monica Stratton, children’s facilitator at Ramsey County Libraries. “Horses can be kind of scary and these horses are a lot more approachable, especially for young kids.”
Allison Polster leads Coal.
As things picked up, the foundation bought two more horses: Little Joey in summer 2013 and Rocket, who’s still in training, in February 2014. Today, they average two to four visits a week managed by Polster, her father Chris Polster and five volunteers.
The horses carry out the therapeutic part of their mission by visiting nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and hospitals. While it is a newer area of study, research on animal therapy shows that interaction with animals can help lower participants’ stress levels and increase feelings of joy. “If you could see the way people’s eyes light up when those horses walk in the room, it’s really amazing,” says Donna White, a therapeutic recreation coordinator at Walker Methodist in Minneapolis.
In addition to brushing and stroking the horses, White and Jacobson both note how their residents love to reminisce about times past when they may have ridden a horse or helped take care of one on the family farm.
The Half-Pint team satisfies their literary goals by visiting libraries to read books about horses to young children. Doing this, Polster and Stratton say, helps build familiarity with the library and a positive association with reading—all constructive steps towards improving childhood literacy rates. “Libraries do this sort of thing to expand the educational impact a book on paper can have,” says Stratton. “Instead of reading a static story about something that they might not see in real life, we pair that [experience] with getting to see one in person, touching it, and talking to someone who really knows about this animal.”
In addition to their nonprofit work, Half Pint Horses operates five summer Horse Camps and Tiny Tots Riders. These camps are becoming increasingly popular (“they fill up the day the registration opens up,” says Polster) and offer kids the chance to learn about and play with horses. All proceeds made from the camp go toward supporting the nonprofit visits, which cost the foundation approximately $250 apiece.
Polster also raises funds for the foundation through an annual Hoedown.
In the future, Polster hopes to be able to attract more volunteers, carry out more visits per week and offer the foundation’s literacy components to inner-city schools.
Meet the Half Pints
Help support the Half Pint Horse Foundation at the nonprofit organization’s annual Hoedown on Sept. 20. The event starts with a show put on by the horses and campers, and it also includes live music, barbecue, a silent auction and dancing. Check the website for times and ticket information.