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Petite ponies bring joy to students during campus visit

By Angela Hatcher, Senior Staff Writer

At 1:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 29, Miami University students congregated around the Armstrong Student Center's patio. "Oohs" and "Awws" rippled through the crowd. Everyone had a camera or cell phone ready.

"I can't even handle the cuteness," someone in the crowd said.

"I'm literally dying," her friend replied.

The crowd buzzed with excitement.

The source of all the commotion? Two miniature horses dressed as unicorns.

Dallas, a two-year-old miniature Palomino, and Denver, a three-year-old miniature Palomino, quickly captured the hearts of the people walking by. The miniature horses had both their manes and tails dyed pink for the occasion and were sporting blue, sparkly unicorn horns. Their handlers walked them down Slant Walk to the student center where eager students had the chance to pet and pose for a picture with the horses.

Besides the obvious cuteness and joy that these furry, four-legged friends brought during their trip to Miami, the visit served a much greater purpose: "Horses helping people and people helping horses."

"That's always been our motto," said Lisa Moad, founder, president, trainer and handler at Seven Oaks Farm.

Moad, who has always loved animals, especially horses, was inspired to create a local, non-profit organization after discovering the benefits of miniature horse therapy.

Years ago, Moad saw a post on Facebook about a woman who was dying. Her final wish was to see her horse one last time. Her horse was a mini.

"I just thought to myself, there would be a lot of people who are animal lovers who would enjoy a visit from an animal in the hospital," Moad said.

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With that in mind, Moad began to research the training her minis would have to go through to be event ready.

The miniature horses, who are classified as assisted activity animals, go through three levels of training to ensure they are ready to be around copious amounts of people in different environments.

"It takes roughly 80 to 100 hours of events for them to really be ready and, of course, the training they get at the farm as well," said Moad.

Seven Oaks Farm works within the local community, visiting nursing homes, the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati and Dayton Ronald McDonald Houses and various hospices.

"When you walk in and see people's demeanor completely change … you get to see them interacting with the horses and the horses interacting with people and develop relationships," said Moad. "It's so rewarding."

Moad's horses are like family to her. She spends the majority of her days, from sunrise to sunset, walking, training and feeding the horses.

Seven Oaks Farm's mantra reiterates Moad's belief in people helping horses as much as the horses help people. As such, Moad also takes in rescue horses. Moad and her team of volunteers care for the animals and retrain them so they can be ready for other programs.

"It's really hard to let them go, let me tell you," Moad said. "It's a lot of tears and a lot of heartache. But when you see them being used for good … it's incredible."

Moad's work within the local community is representative of the success and positive effect that horse therapy has had worldwide.

In 2012, The Guardian reported in an article titled "Not just horsing around … psychologists put their faith in equine therapies," that horses were aiding in therapy to, "treat everything from addiction to autism to post traumatic stress disorder." The article said that horses are naturally empathetic creatures and, as such, are able to interact extremely well with humans.

Gentle Carousel, a nonprofit therapy horse organization, has utilized its miniature ponies to interact with survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting, visit children in Oklahoma whose homes were destroyed by the vicious tornadoes in 2013 and to make trips to local hospitals in Florida, where Gentle Carousel is based.

One of Gentle Carousel's therapy ponies even made Time Magazine's Top 10 Heroic Animals List in 2011. Magic was named the AARP's most heroic animal in 2010 after visiting a patient in a live-in facility who hadn't spoken in years. Upon seeing the miniature horse, the staff was astounded as the patient commented on how beautiful Magic was.

First-year student Kelly Burns was in the middle of the crowd on Friday, staring in awe at the tiny horses.

"Syllabus week is always kind of boring," Burns said. "And the ponies were just something fun and unexpected that made the week more exciting."

Akosua Boadi-Agyemang also had the pleasure of meeting the furry friends.

"I guess it's just really amazing how interacting with such tiny horses can refresh someone with a lot of stress and just allow for them to take a breath and enjoy the cuteness of these horses," Agyemang said.

She, like many other Miamians, took dozens of pictures to document the unique experience.

"Last week was a stressful week for me, and I'm sure it was for a lot of people," Agyemang said. "...but spending five minutes around these horses … I was able to smile, laugh and totally have a good day."