They may be small, but Jasper, Winnie and Bailey are making a big impact on young and old alike. The trio of American miniature horses are the stars of Heartland Mini Hoofs, a Taylorsville, Illinois-based non-profit organization that brings smiles, laughter and love to nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, schools, senior communities, Alzheimer’s units and other special groups throughout central Illinois.
Better known as “the horse lady,” Andra Ebert is the visionary behind Heartland. A licensed social worker and registered nurse, she spent 30 years working with elderly patients at area hospitals. Upon her retirement, she launched Heartland to continue contributing to the community.
“I’ve seen them approach nursing home residents who are pretty non-responsive,” Andra says. “They’ll just lay their noses on the person’s arms and oftentimes, the residents will open their eyes, smile and reach out to pet the horses.”
Andra remembers one such interaction, an elderly woman with advanced Alzheimer’s, who no longer spoke to her family or staff. “She would take Bailey’s face in her hands, lean down and start talking to him,” Andra recalls. “We visited her every month, and for six months, she would talk to Bailey.”
In addition to their outreach to elderly populations, the miniature horses are regular visitors to central Illinois elementary and middle schools, as part of an anti-bullying program. The horses help capture children’s attention and reinforce the program’s key messages. “Horses take care of each other, which is why they live in herds,” Andra explains. Through the “Just Say Whoa® to Bullying” program, Andra encourages children to follow Jasper, Winnie and Bailey’s example, and look out for one another if they witness bullying.
Last year, Andra and her horses made 166 visits and traveled 12,000 miles, bringing smiles to hundreds of faces along the way. “The connection that they make is something magical,” she says. “They intuitively know when there are adults or children with special needs and they are the calmest, most gentle, accepting animals in the world.”