By Britney Grover
If you were to think of horses working with the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department, you’d be correct in assuming the horses are exceptionally well-trained, have their own expert handlers, are completely desensitized to extreme situations, are on-call 24/7 and are impeccably groomed. You may even have guessed that they sometimes walk alongside deputies in parades like the famous annual Tournament of Roses Parade. What might not leap to mind is that they could also be trained to play a keyboard with their muzzle, regularly visit children and veterans at hospitals and weigh around 100 pounds — but those are all attributes of the horses at Mini Therapy Horses in Calabasas, California.
Mini Therapy Horses founder and president Victoria Nodiff-Netanel was always drawn to the healing qualities of horses. “I’ve always loved horses,” she said. “When I was a little kid in Wisconsin, I used to pretend I was a horse, and by now I feel like I’m half horse. I just always had this passion for horses — stuffed horses, plastic horses, any kind of horses. I never grew out of it. My daughter still looks for horse toys for me and sends me horse books to read to the kids we work with now.”
From Patterns to Pets
As she grew older, Victoria pursued her talents in art — although horses often featured in her photorealistic paintings, including at California Institute of the Arts. In her 30s, Victoria took up dressage seriously. She rode with Hilda Gurney and then Jan Ebling, who became a close personal friend along with his wife and family. In a roundabout way, it was through dressage that Victoria first discovered miniature horses.
“Next to Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Santa Inez is Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch,” Victoria recalled. “When I had to trailer my dressage horses up to Santa Inez, I would bribe my daughter to go with me with a visit to the mini horse ranch — but really, it was for me just as much as it was for her. We would stop and visit regularly, and thought we’d have one as a pet someday.”
As she got older and her daughter was getting ready to go to college, Victoria felt it was time to make a change in her life. “I decided to go back to painting full time, and not ride. It was such a hard decision, but I knew I would never have a better horse than I’d had, and thought it would be a good time to retire from dressage — to go back to painting, and maybe get a little mini. But dressage, to a certain extent, was my identity: It’s what I did every day, working with Jan and my horse, going to Moorpark, feeling part of a team, being involved in the sport for so long. It was very hard to make that shift.”
So hard, in fact, that Victoria’s life with horses started to rub off on her mini, Quicksilver’s Black Pearl. “I started training Pearl because I had so much horse experience to draw from that I couldn’t just have her as a pet,” she said. “I had to teach her to smile and to do things. She was such a little buddy that I took her everywhere. I had that lightbulb moment thinking, I love this little horse so much, and I can train her to do all these different things — I can help people with this horse. I do love helping people, I always have. That’s where it really started. I just realized I could give back with this horse. I didn’t know anything, but I thought it would be a good fit.”
Growing a Program
Veterans were the first to come to Victoria’s mind, and her first visits with Pearl were to the Veterans’ Hospital — now, nearly 10 years later, it’s still somewhere Victoria and her team of Mini Therapy Horses volunteers take the minis. “We go in the intensive care unit every week, and I run a program in the lockdown psychiatric ward there that really means a lot to me,” Victoria shared. “I see veterans all the time that say, ‘I saw you three years ago!’ and they’ll show me a picture on their phone of what horse I had at the time. It’s really special.”
But the VA Hospital isn’t the only place regularly visited by Mini Therapy Horses: They assist with community outreach programs at police stations, volunteer at at-risk youth centers, are members of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Crisis Response Team, attend Ronald McDonald Houses, lead charity 5k races and more.
As volunteers with the L.A. County Sherriff’s Department, Victoria and her minis help with community outreach like reading books to children in schools and libraries. “When you have this little horse or horses and there are deputies, search and rescue, the police department and all of that, it’s a really great way to help kids look at law enforcement a little differently, maybe as a little more accessible, so they may be a little more willing to go to them if there’s a problem or if they’re lost,” Victoria said. The minis work with Lieutenant Jennifer Seetoo to visit schools, walk in parades — anything a small, friendly horse can do.
Every other week, Mini Therapy Horses can be found at the Los Angeles Department of Children Family Services Juvenile Court. “We visit 60 to 90 kids that have been abused or pulled out of homes,” Victoria said. “They might be there to testify against parents or an abuser, or be going in for a meeting with a parent, all kinds of things. But they’re kids who are really going through a traumatic time, a lot of horrible things. These kids need so much support and an outlet for relieving some of their fears and anger. They just need some compassion and caring from someone very non-judgmental of their situation and of them, like these horses.”
The children range from very young to teenagers, some having arrived at the court just after being removed from a home, scared and crying. “I feel very honored to be there with our horses, and I feel like we make a huge difference for the kids,” Victoria shared. “We’ve sat with the horse when a kid is just hugging the horses and crying and sitting on the ground. They’re just afraid to let go, but they will, with the horse.”
Mini Therapy Horses also connect with children in very different circumstances at Ronald McDonald Houses in Pasadena and L.A. “That’s so touching because we see a lot of cancer patients and lots of kids that have limbs removed and all kinds of procedures from all over the world. And the horses, you don’t need any language — the horses are there for hugging and crying with and petting and brushing.”
Victoria takes pride in the training of all of the miniature horses in the program. In addition to being taught ice-breaker tricks like giving high-fives, squeaking rubber chickens and playing a small electric keyboard with their muzzles, Victoria’s horses know not to touch lines or anything attached to patients in hospitals. With strict no-treat rules from everyone but handlers, the minis never search others for food. They stand still for all the brushing, braiding and hugging, empower children or disabled individuals through double-lead walking, and — most impressively — are completely potty-trained: they go only when and where told, and never wear bags.
The minis of Mini Therapy Horses are kept immaculately clean and are body-clipped every three weeks to keep them in top shape for their indoor work. Still, their needs are just like any other horse: feed, bedding, upkeep of barns and vehicles, traveling expenses and more. Mini Therapy Horses is 100 percent volunteer-run, including Victoria, and is funded by donations. They have a few sponsors, but rely on their exposure and publicity to get the support they need to continue their important work — which Victoria hopes to expand.
“The chief surgeon of the VA ICU asked me if we’d like to start a program with patients before they go in for major surgery when they will be in intensive care afterwards,” Victoria said. “It’s something that’s never been done before, and I’m very excited about it. He says he’s seen the positive benefits with the patients that have been in the ICU, and feels that some patients who need motivation to be strong enough for surgery can benefit from our program.”
Other goals include gaining access to more children’s hospitals, arranging traveling visits to some of the country’s largest children’s and VA hospitals and expanding the pool of volunteers to be able to meet more requests. While Victoria can’t say enough good about her volunteers, she’s also quick to credit the magic of Mini Therapy Horses to its source.
“We’re just facilitators, just handlers,” she said. “We let them know we’re just volunteers there to share the horses, that the horses are very loving and are great listeners — the horses do the rest.”
For more information, visit www.minitherapyhorses.com.
Photos courtesy of Mini Therapy Horses