Heartland Mini Hoofs Provides Hope in a Harness
Whether bringing a moment’s peace to the parent of a sick child or a smile to the face of a lonely senior citizen, a trio of tiny horses – better known as Heartland Mini Hoofs – quietly blazes a trail of sunshine across the Land of Lincoln.
Andra Ebert founded the Taylorville-based nonprofit organization in 2015 to bring happiness, healing and comfort using miniature horses – specifically, Bailey, Jasper and Winnie. In search of a retirement hobby, Ebert found instead a labor of love.
“Our mission is to meet with people and bring smiles and joy to them. Through those visits, we help them physically, mentally and emotionally,” Ebert explains. A visit from Heartland Mini Hoofs may lead to side effects, such as increased endorphins, lower blood pressure, improved range of motion – and, quite simply, joy. Ebert’s horses have even inspired nonverbal patients to talk.
The Mane Attraction
On the road three days a week, these pint-size “Ambassadors of Happiness” appear at hospitals, nursing homes, veteran’s homes and schools, where they star in an anti-bullying program called Just Say Whoa to Bullying. Since 2015, the team logged more than 50,000 miles, 650 visits and countless smiles.
When you factor in travel time and prep for the horses – including a salon-style blowout using an air compressor and leave-in hair conditioner – even an hourlong visit can eat up most of Ebert’s day.
“I make sure the horses go to the bathroom, and I clean their feet, brush their coats and wipe their faces and noses. It’s like having toddlers all over again,” she says with a laugh. “I want them super clean, so people can have that nose-to-nose experience.”
Their impeccable grooming and gentle demeanor meet the strict certification standards established by the American Miniature Therapy Horse Association, an organization that Ebert helped establish.
The horses weigh between 130 and 160 pounds, with the tallest (Bailey) standing just 32 inches at the withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades). Each brings its own unique personality, from playful Winnie to patient Bailey. (In fact, more than a few visitors at a recent wellness fair mistook a startlingly still Bailey for a statue.)
Their petite size and doe eyes lend themselves to meaningful encounters.
“Miniature horses stand almost eye to eye with someone in a bed or wheelchair,” Ebert says. “People take hold of their face and put it against their own. It’s like looking into a gentle soul. The horses are so patient, letting person after person do that to them.”
See more: Horse-Powered Healing
Their presence makes a palpable difference at HSHS St. John’s Children’s Hospital in Springfield, where Heartland Mini Hoofs makes much-anticipated monthly visits.
“These kids are in pain, and their parents are scared and stressed out. We walk in and you can just see the fear melt away,” Ebert says.
Vanessa Tinkous, child life specialist at HSHS St. John’s Children’s Hospital, sees it, too.
“What Andra and her horses do is amazing. If a child has had a rough day, the horses might bring out a smile or get them out of their bed. These visits bring a lot of happiness, joy and excitement,” Tinkous says. “It’s just as exciting for the parents because they get to see their child acting more like the child they know. They get their kid back, even if just for a while.”
And therein lies the magic of this tiny trio. Their selfless handler remains in awe of her pint-size partners in healing.
“They do a remarkable job. It’s as if God whispered in their ear, ‘this is your mission,’” she says. “It’s been a partnership that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”