The van beeps a warning as it backs up to the barn. The back opens, and an elderly man in a wheelchair appears. At first, he is only a silhouette being pushed down the aisle where curious horses poke their heads out of stalls to watch him pass by. But as he is turned toward one of the horses, the slight smile that creases his face becomes visible.
The horse, Calippo, stretches his head toward Preston Schaub, who raises his hand and touches the silken nose. The slight smile breaks into a wide grin.
Schaub has always loved horses, and his visit Tuesday to the barn proved that Winston Churchill was right — the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.
Schaub went to Amber Glen Equestrian Center in Pinellas Park as part of the pet therapy program sponsored by the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. The concept is not unique. Cats and dogs regularly visit hospice patients to bring them comfort. But Calippo might be the only hospice horse in the country.
Calippo is an 11-year-old Rheinlander — sometimes spelled Rhinelander — gelding that was brought from Germany earlier this year. His owner, Darlene Blair, bought him a little more than a year ago when she and her husband, Rick, a reservist and defense contractor with the Air Force, were stationed in Germany. They brought Calippo when they returned stateside.
Blair began training Calippo to join the Pinellas Park Police Department's volunteer mounted patrol. He was scheduled to take the qualifying test Saturday. Blair and her husband also started volunteering at hospice. One of the volunteer training sessions regarded the pet therapy program, which has 69 dogs and one cat. Someone in the class mentioned that the Blairs had a horse. Volunteer coordinator Alicia Lawler had been looking for other types of animals to join the program because "different animals speak to different people." Lawler went to meet Calippo.
Calippo got the job. That didn't surprise Blair.
"He has a charming personality," Blair said. "He has a great smile."
Schaub, who receives hospice care at his home, was the perfect choice for Calippo's first patient.
Schaub, 86, has adored horses all his life and served for about 30 years as a mounted police officer for the Essex County Police Department in New Jersey. Schaub suffers from mild dementia and can no longer walk. But on Tuesday, he left his bed for the first time in more than a year to meet Calippo.
The meeting was a bit awkward at first. The proper way to feed a horse a snack is with an outstretched palm so no fingers are accidentally nipped. Schaub was at first unable to uncurl his hands, but by the end of the session, he was able to straighten his hand to offer apple chunks.
"As I watched him, I noticed he didn't back down and his memory banks kicked in," said Cindy Schaub, one of his four children. And later that day he was able to remember the visit and tell his family how pleased he was.
"It was so nice. So we knew that it made an impact for him to remember four or five hours later," Cindy Schaub said. "It lifted his spirits."
A plus, she said, was the presence of two Pinellas Park police officers, both of whom serve on the mounted patrol.
"To see two officers standing there in full uniform, that brought back memories," she said. "They have the passion for the horses as much as he did. … That delighted him."
"He was always a horse guy. He always loved the horses," said Schaub's wife, Lil.
Schaub was delighted, she said, to be sent to South Carolina for training when he volunteered for the Army after Pearl Harbor, because he trained with horses. But once in Europe, he was transferred to tanks and motorcycles in his job as point man for his fellow soldiers. Not many of his troops returned, Mrs. Schaub said. He never talked about his experiences in places like Tunisia, Rome, Sicily, the Rhineland and southern France, but the experience stuck. He would never watch war movies like Saving Private Ryan and could not go to any film where there was "banging and shooting."
Schaub was much happier after the war, once he joined the Essex Police Department and got his position on the mounted patrol.
"He thought it was great when he had to get up at 4:30 to get them ready," Mrs. Schaub said. "He rode them all."
And he cared for them, Mrs. Schaub said.
"The main thing was the everyday care," she said. "He really enjoyed it."
Schaub would take his family and buy bushels of apples and carrots for the horses. Then he would go to the barn, Cindy Schaub said, and say, " 'Okay, boys, I got the apples today.' And all the heads would come out of the stall, pop, pop, pop, pop."
Both his wife and daughter said Schaub had an incredible bond with the horses. They were calm and placid with him. He taught them tricks, such as smiling when the sergeant walked by.
"We used to go over and at the end of the day … we'd get up on those horses bareback," Cindy Schaub said. "They'd come up and put their heads on our shoulders. He had so much control, so much camaraderie with the horses."
Cindy Schaub could remember only one time her father had trouble with a horse. He was riding it across a creek on a hot day.
The horse stopped in the middle and rolled in the water with her father on top. Schaub, the saddle, everything was sopping wet.
Schaub retired in 1983 and moved here in 1985, leaving his precious police horses behind. But Tuesday, he got to reminisce a bit. The next day, when his wife asked whether he enjoyed it, he said, "Yeah, that was really nice, but I feel bad because I didn't ride him and they like to go for a ride … but I can't do that."
Mrs. Schaub said she told her husband: "Next time."