By Susan Redden
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Bridget Kavanagh always knew her 2-year-old miniature horse, Tonka Toy, was lovable. But she said she never thought about sharing him with others until after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
It was then that she read an article about a Florida group that took miniature horses trained for therapy to the community in an attempt to comfort families and residents after 29 school children and six school staffers were slain.
"Hundreds of people went to see them, and they liked them so much," she said. "They said it really helped. I got online and offered to give one of my horses to a group that uses them for therapy."
Her offer was accepted by Wee Whinnies, a Montana group that has a therapy program for disabled children and takes its horses to nursing homes and parades.
Now Kavanagh is preparing the little horse for a trip west and a new life.
Kavanagh said she is especially attached to Tonka Toy because he was born prematurely -- a week before the Joplin tornado -- and abandoned in the pasture by his mother.
"He weighed less than 10 pounds," she said. "I had to search to find him. When I got him in the barn to nurse, I had to hold him up to his mother, because he couldn't stand."
Now, Tonka is healthy and playful, and Kavanagh walks him in a halter as a start in training him for his new role as a therapy horse.
"He's been through a lot, but he's tough, like a little Tonka toy," she said.
Tonka's departure won't leave Kavanagh with an empty barn. On her farm near Joplin she has 12 miniatures horses -- she's had as many as 15 -- including the newest born a month ago, plus two miniature donkeys as well as geese and chickens.
She said there are three dogs, all rescues, at her home. She has helped raise other animals including chinchillas and sugar gliders -- "any critter our daughter brought home."
She credits her interest in miniature horses to her daughter, Melissa, who will graduate in May from the veterinarian technician program at Crowder College.
"She raises (full-sized) horses, but they scare me," she said. "So, I started with the miniatures. It's something we can do together."
Michael Kavanagh, Melissa's father, said their daughter sometimes takes her animal devotion to the extreme.
"One time a while back I pulled up behind her, driving on Main Street, and I thought she had one of the dogs in the car. Then a (miniature) horse stuck its head out the window," he said. "I don't think she's done that since."
The three full-sized horses -- two are rescues that were abandoned by owners -- share a paddock alongside, but separate, from their smaller counterparts. Tonka and two other miniature horses share quarters across the road, with the two miniature donkeys.
Kavanagh, who works as a dental assistant, said she spends much of her spare time caring for the animals.
"I don't like to sit around and watch TV," she said. "Watching them is a lot more fun."
Small animals, big reactions
Peoples' fascination with the little horses is what spawned the therapy program, said Cassandra Wilson, of Wee Whinnies Therapeutic Minis. She said she and her husband began raising the horses about six years ago and after a time started taking them to parades.
"We were in one parade and people from a nursing home were sitting kind of far back, under a tree, so we took a couple of minis to them," she said. "Seeing how they reacted and how the people reacted to them started me thinking."
The nursing home director invited them to visit, and now they frequently visit nursing homes in the area.
"I've trained them to walk in small spaces, so they don't knock over IV-poles or people on walkers, and they walk on all types of surfaces," she said. "But I'm overwhelmed with the response we receive from people reaching and smiling and interacting with them. It gives me goose bumps."
After a local newspaper did an article about the nursing home visits, Wilson said she was contacted by an elementary school counselor who works with special needs children. She teaches children with diseases in the autism spectrum and some recovering from other serious illnesses.
"She wanted to start bringing a few kids at a time and worked with me to develop a program."
This will be the second year for the therapy, where the children's interaction with the horses ranges from simply observing them to leading, exercising and grooming them.
"Sometimes they won't open up to anther person, but they will to the horses. It helps their communications skills and social interaction. And you can't be around these little horses and not feel better."
Wee Whinnies runs on donations and does not charge for its services. Wilson said she and Kavanagh are working together to raise the money to get Tonka a needed medical certificate and transportation to Montana. Area residents who want to help can send donations to Kavanagh at P.O. Box 53, Carterville, MO 64835.
Though breed standards vary among registries, miniature horses are usually less than 32 to 38 inches tall, measured at the base on the horse's mane.