Small horses, big love
When Ginny Mills first encouraged a visitor to her ranch to take a miniature horse for a walk, the visitor was hesitant.
The woman, who was developmentally disabled, asked her caregiver to accompany her.
"I said, 'No, no sweetheart. You know what? You are a strong individual,'" Mills said. "'You have your horse here. I want you to take her for a walk and show her how strong and independent you are.'"
Once she had completed the brief walk, the woman was triumphant.
"I will not forget her face. There was a smile from ear to ear, and with her horse, she walked back to her caregiver (and said) 'I did it! Did you see me? I did it!'" Mills recalled.
Mills, who moved from Colorado to Estacada earlier this year, has facilitated equine-assisted therapy for the last decade. Her nonprofit organization, Mello Memories, is named after her father, Melvin Leo, and connects people with physical and developmental disabilities with horses to develop life skills.
The miniature horses stabled at Mello Memories are Summer, Desi, D'lyte, Locket, Serenity and Libby. They are joined by Mariah, a Quarter Horse.
Rather than riding the equines, clients at Mello Memories perform various tasks with one of the animals by their side. The experience helps them develop self-confidence, communication and hone other abilities.
For example, when working with people who have balance issues, Mills will encourage them to walk with their horse across uneven terrain or a trampoline that was installed in the ground.
"(I'll tell them) 'I want you to show my horse how brave you are in stepping on this trampoline. Now, remember, you're a partner. You're a team. If you need assistance, hold onto the (horse's) mane or her neck. She will give you the support you need,'" she said.
Mills cultivates a positive environment for clients at Mello Memories.
"We'll take one little step at a time, and every time they make a step we're praising them," she said. "There is no negativity. (Saying) 'I can't' doesn't work here. 'I'm having difficulty' might, but 'I can't' does not work here. My philosophy is everyone has potential, whether it's a smidgeon or whether it's a giant leap."
She added that the equines help create an atmosphere of acceptance for clients.
"Horses have that unconditional love. I think that is probably number one for these individuals. If they make a mistake or they're having difficulty doing something, that horse doesn't care," Mills said.
She added that this is particularly valuable for people with disabilities.
"The individuals, they have this disability, and us . . . 'normal' beings say, 'You're worthless. You can't do that, oh that's alright just forget it.' They have that tone in their voice. That beats them down a lot. But not with the horses," Mills said. "(They don't judge because) you can't walk properly, or you can't talk, or you have Down syndrome, or you're in a wheelchair. Whatever the gambit is, the horse doesn't care. So that's nice knowing (that they) have this creature that is with (them) no matter what."
At her ranch in Colorado, Mills had a variety of elements for clients to engage with that she plans to recreate in Estacada, including a mud kitchen, comfort station, a table focus-
ed on tactile activities and
an affirmation trail. At each one of these sensory stations, clients had a horse by their side.
While walking along the affirmation trail, clients would pass trees with signs that said words like beautiful and strong. They would then use the word to describe themselves and their horse.
"They have to acknowledge that they are whatever the sign says. After awhile you can see it slowly sinking into their mannerisms. The things that they do are starting to show that they're a little stronger," Mills said.
In the mud kitchen, clients could work with biodegradable items like rice and birdseed while their hooved friend was next to them.
"They would sit there and they could pretend they were making cakes or cupcakes or cookies. They're in that tactile," Mills said. "They still have to control that horse by not allowing her to eat the birdseed. They're learning to assert themselves."
Clients also had the opportunity to enhance their communication skills. Using toy telephones and photos of food, they would pretend to order something to eat.
"They would point to the picture, and I would say, 'This is a burger. Try to tell them burger,'" Mills recounted. "Even if they can't speak, I want them to talk in the phone and eventually start placing (their) own order. The horse is with them the whole time nuzzling them. They've got that security and unconditional love from the horse."
Mills said working with the equines also allows clients to become assertive and develop problem solving skills.
"How many of these individuals have not been in charge? So now they learn that (they're) walking the horse. Even if they're in a wheelchair they hold the rope and lead that horse," she added.
For Mills, one of the most rewarding parts of Mello Memories is seeing her clients gain confidence.
"I had clients who would say, 'I want to work with so and so today.' And we would let them choose whichever horse they wanted to work with. Watching that interaction is just amazing," she said. "You can sit back and your heart would fill, your eyes would water because you can just see the improvement that this child made in just maybe two sessions with this horse. He's not afraid now."