Broward News

Gentle Carousel, Florida Nonprofit, Brought Mini Horse Therapy to Sandy Hook Survivors

Let's stop wasting our attention on the crazy mofos insisting that the Sandy Hook massacre didn't happen and direct our precious mental energy over to a group that is doing something positive for Newtown. Gentle Carousel is a Florida-based nonprofit organization that brings miniature therapy horses to visit and cheer...
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Let's stop wasting our attention on the crazy mofos insisting that the Sandy Hook massacre didn't happen and direct our precious mental energy over to a group that is doing something positive for Newtown.

Gentle Carousel is a Florida-based nonprofit organization that brings miniature therapy horses to visit and cheer up people in need -- such as elderly people in hospices or nursing homes or kids sick with cancer or other terminal illnesses or at-risk kids who need a little incentive to learn how to read. As far as owner Debbie Garcia-Bengochea knows, there's no other similar organization operating at a scope like this -- with 32 horses, that runs 100 percent on a volunteer basis, that never turns down a request, and that serves 18,000 people a year.

Two days ago, Garcia-Bengochean and her team returned from the horses' first trip to see snow -- in Newtown, Connecticut.

Some people in Newtown had heard of the horses and followed Gentle Carousel on Facebook. After the shooting, the horses -- including Magic, who Time magazine once named among the Top 10 Most Heroic animals of all time (she was the only living animal on the list) -- got a request to come visit.

Typically, the animals don't leave the state. They would need special trailers, accommodations, and stables. Fundraising began. Adults and children from all over the world sent money to help cover expenses for the trip. "One girl sent a dollar. She said, 'I'm sending you my whole allowance!'" Garcia-Bengochea says.

In Newtown, the team visited a gymnasium, where all the survivors from Sandy Hook families were invited. Garcia-Bengochea says she was amazed that 600 people showed up.

Kids were allowed to talk to and pet the animals. Even if temporary, there was happiness in a place where happiness has been way too scarce. But it was also heartbreaking.

At one moment, Garcia-Bengochea says, the kids were asked, "Do you want to hear a story?" And a girl asked, "Does anyone die in it?"

One of the families had lost a little girl with a full head of red hair and blue eyes and freckles on her nose. Catherine Hubbard. A little girl who loved to ride horses.

Days after the massacre, the Ridge Equestrian Center in Newtown, where Catherine used to ride and where she had her sixth birthday party, posted this on its Facebook page: "Catherine was a MIGHTY child, with a soft spirit and loved riding so very much. Just a few short weeks ago, her grandparents came to watch her lesson... and each time she would kick ole' Whisper into a canter she would look out the corner of her eye to see if Grandpa was watching and then get a huge smile on her face... just so excited to share her joy."

One of Gentle Carousel's miniature horses looked shockingly similar to Catherine. This is a horse who had never really had a name that stuck. On paper, the horse's name was "Dancing in the Rain," but everyone would call her various nicknames, like "Little Red" or "Sweetie."

Says Garcia-Bengochea, she had "hair color exactly same color as this little girl. Freckles on her nose, like she does." Catherine "was really tiny -- and this horse was just 13 inches tall when it was born" last year.

In a coincidence, a woman who ran the blog for the equestrian center in Newtown where the horses were staying had used the phrase "Dancing in the Rain" just days after the massacre.

Also from the equestrian center's Facebook:

"I burst into happy tears when I realized that the Little mini's registered name is 'Dance in the Rain'... because when I was writing in the blog on December 18th... long before I even knew these magical mini's were coming to Newtown, I searched and searched for a quote... and one finally jumped out at me... 'It's not about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to DANCE IN THE RAIN'... I am sitting here crying and crying because I know that our little angel Catherine knew all along what was coming to us with these mini's... Funny how she so CLEARLY left her message :)"

Everyone knew what they had to do. An intermediary approached the family and asked if it would be OK to name the horse Catherine. The family said they'd be honored.

Says Garcia-Bengochea: "It's a small thing, but when you have a person who is such an animal lover..."

Catherine's favorite color is pink, so the horse will have a pink halter and accessories. "The little girls who rode with her are going to track its progress as it becomes mighty Catherine. She's going to be working with children in hospitals. Catherine would have loved that." 

The Gentle Carousel team only intended to stay a week but was persuaded to stay a second. It visited the preschool that most of the Sandy Hook victims had attended the year before. "The teachers had lost nine kids." The director said it was the first time she'd seen a teacher smiling and kids singing since the massacre. They sang "Pick Me Up, Buttercup."

Garcia-Bengochea says the horses have a power that even surprises her. One time, they worked with a boy who'd been in the hospital his whole life and requested to see the horses. The boy said he had never had a happy day in his life until that day. Another time, they visited a woman in nursing home who hadn't talked in years, until a horse put its head in her lap and she burst out "It's beautiful" -- she's talked ever since that day. Another person woke from a coma when the horses came in.

There was the little girl who had a heart transplant and then got leukemia who declared, "I'll get out of bed for Magic." The mother and daughter who both had cancer who wanted to see the horses; they have since died. The little girl whose last wish was to have a tea party with the horses, so the horses came dressed in tuxedos and her cousins came in party dresses.

Garcia-Bengochea says that while other people love to see the looks on the faces of the children, she looks at their families. "The looks on their faces when their child is happy. The caregivers -- everyone comes out of woodwork -- doctors, caregivers... Law enforcement officers will be laughing and joking, on their knees with horses -- and these are great big guys."

In Newtown, she met a family whose child missed being killed only because she was late for school that day, and a lot of adults came who didn't even have children. And siblings. Catherine's sibling. "Your heart breaks for the siblings.

"Even adults can't figure out how something like [the massacre] can happen. We were trying to do something for [the kids]. We could keep them safe. Well, we could keep them safe that day. You can't make big promises to anybody."

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