One Little Pony, One Big Heart
by Shannon Smith, Founder
As I entered the dimly lit barn, I wondered if the abused, little pony I was there to pick up was even inside. There were no other horses in the barn and it looked like the rickety old building hadn’t really been used in a while. Soon enough, though, a little black head popped over the top of one of the doors. What I saw was not for the faint at heart.
The person who owned this barn had found this pony wandering in the woods bleeding from his legs, mouth, and head. Someone had tied him up by an ear, his lip, and his back legs and sterilized (gelded) him with no anesthesia. He had obviously broken free, probably due to the pain, and run away. During his escape, the pony had ripped his entire right ear off, as well as part of his upper lip. He had torn the flesh on his legs as well, leaving bloody lines where the ropes had been. The person who found him had been hiding him for a couple of months and, unfortunately, had made his medical condition considerably worse by not having his wounds treated.
Amazingly enough, the animals I go to rescue always know that I’m there to get them. There was an instant bond between this little guy and me. Even with the horribly festering wound where his ear used to be and with it swelling all the way down to his nose, he let me put a halter right on him…he completely knew I was his ticket to a new, better life. I took him out of the stall, walked him around a bit, and walked him right onto the open horse trailer I had waiting outside. The trust he placed in me that day has never wavered for a moment.
When he got to Whisper Ranch, volunteers, family and I settled on the name “Bishop” for him. Bishop’s next few months were spent on medical care and trust building with the rest of the world. Let me tell you, trust building is quite a challenge for a little guy going through multiple surgeries and daily wound care.
Every day, I took time with Bishop to lead him around and practice going all over the Ranch. You’d be amazed at all the places that horse treats manage to hide, waiting to be found by a brave little pony. 😉
I knew that Bishop had an incredible future. I knew it the moment his little wounded head popped over the stall door. If there is any one gift that equips me to do this work, it is the ability to see these animals as they *ought* to be. When Bishop healed, he would work in our Community Outreach Program and be a shining example of kindness, unconditional love, forgiveness, and overcoming adversity. So, we practiced for this work several times a week during his recovery. Day by day, he learned to go into small rooms, walk on strange surfaces, stand tied for volunteers, walk up and down steps, stand near a wheelchair, and to accept all sorts of other therapy related situations. As his wounds healed, so did his spirit and heart. Bishop was gaining purpose along with new-found confidence and health.
Bishop’s first therapy visit came on Halloween this year. For the last couple of years, Whisper Ranch has dressed up the miniature horses and donkeys in our program in costumes and taken them to a nursing home to give out candy and visit with residents on Halloween. I decided that Bishop was ready to come along and we’d see how things went.
His last major trust issue centered on the place where his ear used to be. To keep people’s hands off of that area, I dressed him in a cowboy hat for the event. I was concerned about him having a bad experience because residents inevitably want to pat these guys on the head like big puppy dogs. He wasn’t going to wear a hat to every visit, though, so he’d have to find his way on this issue eventually.
One of the traits of a good therapy animal is the ability to recognize someone who needs their help and to then be the animal that the person needs in that *moment*. I marvel at this intrinsic, untrainable quality. An animal either has it or they don’t. It is either a part of who they are or it isn’t. I’m not talking about the ability to stand or sit still while someone pets you. That’s great, but I’m talking about knowing whether someone needs a kiss, a hug, silliness, calmness, a face toward them, or a face away from them. Those are the animals that are truly therapy animals. Would Bishop turn out to be the therapy pony I thought he would?
Bishop’s second therapy visit was at a very large facility. Two buildings of residents met outside to see the animals. There were nearly 50 residents, which is at least twice as many as my guys are used to visiting. We’d be very busy trying to get to everyone and give them adequate time and attention. And Bishop did *not* have his hat. He was very brave and went willingly into nooks and crannies with multiple residents surrounding him; situations that made the other animals nervous. Bishop held his head up, smart enough to direct people’s hands to his neck or his nose or his back. He changed energy level and personality for each individual he met. With some people, he simply stood still. With others, he was silly and clever. He playfully used his teeth try to take the bag off the front of one resident’s walker. Everyone loved him. There was one resident, though, that *he* decided needed him more than the others.
The small framed woman sat in her chair blankly staring into some other time and place that the rest of us could not see. She was vacant and distant. Bishop walked to her and insisted that she notice him. He gently placed his head in her lap, exposing his ear site to her completely. One of the nurses tried to get her attention and took her hand and made her pet him. Her efforts were admirable, but didn’t cause the frail, little woman to check in mentally with us. She was not going to be forced or jarred into coming back from wherever she was.
Bishop knew what she needed. He continued to rest his head in her lap…just being there with her…breathing warm pony breath on her and presumably visiting her in whatever empty emotional place she had gone, inviting her back with us. Slowly, after a few minutes, the woman’s gaze began to come down from nowhere and look us in the eye. She looked me in the eye and then looked past me to Bishop. She then picked up her own hand, something no one guessed she had the motor skills to do, and began to pet Bishop. She was rubbing him where his ear used to be. He held perfectly still, knowing what she needed, and gave that vulnerability of himself. She then looked over at me, eye to eye, and said one word that spoke it all, “apple”. That meant, “thank you” and “I’m with you” and “I love him” and “I know what he is and what he likes.” The staff was dumbfounded. Me…I knew that Bishop had arrived at his purpose. This is exactly where he was always meant to be.
The next you long to connect with what is right and good in the world, think of Bishop. Think of the little pony who overcame overwhelming adversity, forgave the human race for abusing him, and now works to make the world a more loving, accepting, unconditionally giving place. Think of how *you* can do even a little bit of what Bishop will do for the rest of his life. Reach out to someone who needs you and make their life better. My wish for you is that they will look you in the eye and say, “Apple”.