Minis & Friends Executive Director Sally Iwanski explains how horse therapists are soothing stress and bringing smiles to Austin.
By Sarah Holcomb
SeanMonet may not be a licensed therapist, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the patients at Dell’s Children’s Medical Center as they stroke his silky black coat. Only 29.75 inches tall with an adorable afro of a mane, the 13-year-old miniature horse can calm anxiety in a way humans simply can’t.
“He’s so cute!” giggles a 5-year-old girl who stands a head taller than the horse. Patients see therapy dogs in the hospital often, but for most, miniature horses are a strange sight.
Iwanski and her husband, Gil, load up their own little horse therapists in a blue Honda mini van and drive them to nursing homes, hospitals and children’s shelters to encourage and provide stress relief. Minis & Friends schedules Saturday visits every week, bringing the Iwanskis’ three minis, or minis belonging to the organization’s other owners, to visit children, seniors and the intellectually disabled. Ten years after they founded the nonprofit, the Iwanskis now serve about 5,000 people a year with a team of 14 minis and 25 volunteers.
Iwanski recalls when Remington, her palomino-pinto mini, walked out of a nursing-home lobby and nudged his way into a 90-year-old woman’s room. As Remington approached her bedside, the woman spoke the first words she had spoken in more than a year: “I used to have a horse.”
And there’s the time SeanMonet decided to enter the room of a resident with an extensive collection of horse books.
The minis have a seemingly magical intuition, something Iwanski simply calls “horse sense,” which they use to detect anxiety and illness.
Iwanski, now 64, adored horses as a kid. Growing up in a military family, she spent hours caring for the horses at the base in exchange for free rides, but she didn’t rediscover her love for horses until her 50s, when she began working for a mini-horse nonprofit in Lockhart, Texas.
Managing the organization’s finances, website and marketing prepared her to eventually launch Minis & Friends. At the time, Iwanski’s 16-year-old daughter was sinking into severe depression.
“I felt like I was losing her,” she says, “When we bought SeanMonet for our youngest daughter for a replacement for talk therapy, this is what grew into a bigger hope, that we could share this with the community. And we have.’ ”
When Iwanski was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, she experienced for herself what it feels like to be comforted by a miniature horse. Before, the horses barely paid attention to her—unless they wanted food, of course. But after she began recovery, the horses wouldn’t leave her alone. They simply knew.
“So, this is what people are getting from them,” Iwanski remembers thinking, as all three minis would rest their heads in her lap. “They’re getting these little horses that are saying, ‘I’m here for you. I’ll help you.’ ”
After she fully recovered, she was back to being the same old Sally.
It’s not hard to fall for the minis, but caring for them requires significant time and energy.
“Yeah, they’re cute, but it’s a lot of responsibility for these little guys,” Iwanski says.
The couple not only boards the horses at their home on weekends, but also sees to their shots, hooves, teeth, blood tests, supplements and weekly washings to ensure they’re healthy and clean and safe to visit patients.
Iwanski primarily handles the back end of Minis & Friends, including paperwork, scheduling visits, coordinating volunteers and running the website. It’s a lot of work, she admits.
“But we can’t quit,” she says, noting Minis & Friends “enabled us to continue with our older years with a sense of purpose, to give back to the community something very unique.”
Entirely donation-based, Minis & Friends relies on 25 volunteers, a number Iwanski hopes to grow. Some funding comes through the nonprofit’s annual mini boot camps, four intensive days of training that have attracted mini-horse owners from throughout the country and even Canada.
Meanwhile, Iwanski still works a full-time desk job during the weekdays. Spending Saturdays with the minis helps her de-stress from the exhausting workweek. Before Minis & Friends, the couple spent Saturdays sitting around or watching movies, Iwanski says. Now the weekend has a new purpose.
“We’re going to give the community joy, happiness, smiles with the miniature horses,” she says. “Wow, does that make me feel good!”
After the kids and their families have cleared out of the pavilion at Dell Children’s, Iwanski reflects back to the smiles she saw.
“See, I’m getting chills!” she says, rubbing her arm. “There’s nothing like it.”
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