SPRING HILL — Ooh's, aahs and the broadest of smiles emanated from the lobby of Spring Oaks Assisted Living Facility one recent afternoon. Loving hands reached out.
The object of this adulation, and soaking up the love, was Dinky, a 21/2-year-old miniature horse visiting as part of the facility's therapy program.
Yes, indoors. Dinky, all 24 inches of him, is housebroken. Honestly.
Activities director Diane Holton had kept the appearance of the tiny horse a secret from residents, saying only it would be a special pet therapy experience. Of 69 residents, some 20 of the curious maneuvered to the lobby, in wheelchairs, leaning on walkers or the arms of staffers.
The session was planned for outdoors, but on the chilly afternoon, a somewhat skeptical Holton agreed to move it indoors for the residents' comfort.
Horse owner Bruce Bohannan of Inverness, cleaning Dinky's hooves in the parking lot before the debut, assured Holton it would be okay.
"He'll tell us if he has to go," said Bohannan. "Then I'll just take him outside to a patch of grass."
In such a situation, Dinky stomps a right hoof several times, his owner explained.
Bohannan didn't teach him; "He taught me," he said, recounting a time early in their relationship when he had taken Dinky inside a pet store. The horse pounded a hoof and, somewhat perplexed, Bohannan suspected Dinky was restless. The duo went outdoors and he and a relieved Dinky soon returned cleanly to the store.
"He is very smart," Bohannan told the residents.
Most of the horse's training entailed overcoming a fear of unusual noises and getting comfortable among objects such as wheelchairs, walkers and canes.
The septuagenarians to nonagenarians at Spring Oaks were fine with an equine of whatever size. Some recalled experiences with horses in their childhood, typically for work and transportation. On this day, Dinky was all about pleasure.
"Where were you when I was a girl in Germany in the "40s?" Olga Brzyski, now 88, asked Dinky.
She explained that the men were at war, so women and girls ran the farms. Among Brzyski's chores: harnessing the big horses to pull plows and haul produce to market. She was of moderate stature at age 18, and throwing a collar around a towering horse's neck was a challenge. She waited until the horse lowered its head of its own volition, giving her a chance to toss on the collar.
Yet, Brzyski holds good memories of the horses.
"Horses are friendly," she smiled as she swept a hand over the soft chestnut coat of Dinky, who maneuvered around the woman's walker to reach her.
"I'd rather work with a horse than a cow," Brzyski said. "Horses are a lot smarter. They are very good to humans."
Among the nodding heads, Alice Woodworth, 74, wore a continuous smile. "I love animals," she said quietly from a corner of the crowd, waiting for her hands-on encounter with Dinky. "I've been admiring him."
Reaching out to the gentle equine, Bunny Dressen, 93, cooed, "Hello, baby." She asked Bohannan, "He's like a puppy, isn't he?"
Dressen first sat on a horse at the age of 17 months, she recalls. Her father bought her the horse to take away some of pain she suffered at the time over the death of her mother. Her father led Dressen and the horse around their property daily on a rein — an early form of pet therapy.
John P. Ioli, 81, remembered a horse as necessary transportation. His father suffered failing eyesight, Ioli said, and could see only enough to drive a horse and wagon to work and back daily.
In answer to residents' questions, Bohannan, 55, listed some of Dinky facts :
Dinky, at 175 to 200 pounds, can carry a child weighing 30 to 40 pounds. Although considered mature, he lost his first baby tooth, larger than a sewing thimble, a couple of weeks ago.
He is not a pony but a horse, a call based on his bone structure. Minis first arrived in the United States about 50 years ago from their native Scotland, where they were employed to pull loaded cars out of the coal mines.
Dinky loves to play. Among the six miniature horses and one mini-donkey that Bohannan owns, Dinky is the instigator leading an equine version of tag plus hide-and-seek.
Dinky is a worker as well. While Bohannan tends his landscape at home, Dinky eats the weeds. Told not to eat the flowers once, Dinky has since obeyed.
Dinky's aversion to a bath makes him testy to the point of sometimes kicking.
Pet therapy is a constant at Spring Oaks, even before activities director Holton signed on some six years ago. Regular visitors she has engaged include German shepherd, Heidi; Maltese, Shadow, provided by HPH Hospice; Shih Tzu Lucie.
"Patients hold and pet the animals," Holton said.
Families and friends are invited to bring their own pets for visiting at any time, provided the animals have appropriate immunizations.
Yet an equine visit was a first, and Dinky's popularity with the residents prompted Holton to schedule Bohannan's appearance at Spring Oaks in May with a petting zoo.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.