At a skilled nursing facility called Westchester Gardens, 63-year-old Mary Clemens was taking a morning stroll with her walker when a pint-sized black horse passed her in the hallway. "You walk around here," Clemens said, "and you never know what you're going to see."
Will Thigpen, a cook, was tending to his duties when he did a double-take and asked, "Was that a horse that just went by? With shoes on?"
That would be Star, a friendly 3-year-old miniature horse. She wears Skechers high-top sneakers and puts smiles — and surprised looks — on the faces of the ill, the disabled and the elderly.
Star is a new volunteer with Project PUP (Pets Uplifting People), a nonprofit group that's been arranging for pet therapy visits at health care centers throughout Tampa Bay since 1984.
Most of the visiting animals are dogs, and there are a few cuddly cats in the group. Sometimes a ferret or rabbit makes an appearance.
But a horse?
Of course, says Karen Tappan, Project PUP's president.
"Star is very special, not just because she's the first horse, but the fact that she is so personable and so well-trained," Tappan said. "She does all these cute little tricks and, since miniature horses can live 30 years or more, she'll have a nice long career ahead of her."
Star weighs about 130 pounds and stands 36 inches to the top of her withers.
At Westchester Gardens, she showed off some impressive horse sense. She offered to shake hooves with residents. Rolled a ball. Even kicked the can.
Her owner, Kathy Van Dyck, said, "We used to call it 'kicking the bucket,' but one of the directors at a nursing home suggested we might want to change the name."
Judy Blume, 76, enjoyed the horsing around.
"I think she's great, very well-trained," Blume said. "She seems to really eat up the attention."
And Louise Schafer, 74, beamed when Star came up to her in a hallway.
"You want to give me a kiss?" Schafer asked from her wheelchair.
"That was a nice one, thank you very much," Schafer said.
• • •
Star was born in May 2009 on a farm in Okeechobee. She went to live with a family that owned a goat farm in Plant City, but that didn't work out.
"The kids got tired of her when they couldn't ride her," said Van Dyck, 59, of Palm Harbor.
So Van Dyck bought Star in 2010, planning to use her as a mascot for a therapeutic riding stable she hoped to open. That never materialized.
About a year ago, she began taking the itsy bitsy horse to preschools, then nursing homes.
Star found her calling.
"Star loves people and people love Star," said Van Dyck.
Miniature horses are also finding vocations as guide companions for the blind. They are trainable, have good vision and can outlive dogs by 15 years, Van Dyck said.
And just like most stars, this one rides in style.
Van Dyck has turned the interior of her white Chevy Astro van into a mini-stall with a trough for hay. A sign on the back reads, Caution: Horse on Board.
"She loves to stick her little nose out the window. We make people smile on the way to the nursing homes, too," Van Dyck said.
Ann Padovani, life enrichment director at the nursing facility, said Star is always a hit when she visits.
"A lot of these people owned horses and grew up on farms, so it means a lot for them to see a horse again," she said. "We've had some funny situations with Star. I remember one patient talking to someone on the phone and telling them, 'Honey, I have to go. There's a horse in my room.' "