Her little pony : Miniature horse provides a spark in the life of a terminally ill child

Horses have always held a special place in the hearts of little girls. Maybe it's the way their manes hang down — kids can't help wanting to run their fingers through them. Or maybe it's how powerful the animals are, the way they seem like they can vanquish anything as they gallop around.

The family of Gwendolyn Strong, 3, may never know exactly why she loves horses, because her mouth can't form the words to tell them.

Diagnosed at 6 months old with type I spinal muscular atrophy, she has to wear a respirator to help her breathe because the muscles around her lungs have atrophied.

But it's clear how much Gwendolyn is thrilled by ponies in the way her big blue eyes light up when she sees one. The sight of a horse will also cause her to make what her mom, Victoria, calls her "happy sound" — guh, guh, guh!

"Cognitively, she's just the same (as other 3-year-olds) but the disease is degenerative, so as time goes on, she's more and more impacted," said Mrs. Strong, 34, a Santa Barbara resident.

Spinal muscular atrophy, which affects nearly one in every 6,000 babies, causes wasting in every muscle in the body and has no cure. It's a terminal disease; most children who have type I die at 2 years old.

Gwendolyn can't sit, stand, walk, eat or breathe without assistance. So she's supported by a battery of machines, including a feeding tube, a suction device that helps her swallow, and heart-rate and oxygen monitors.

Because of muscle weakness, which has left her nearly paralyzed from the neck down, she has to be wheeled around in a reclining stroller.

But for at least an hour a week, she can be distracted from all those things when she visits Little Star, a miniature therapy horse, who's become her friend.

The pony's owner, Diane Hall of Santa Barbara, was a patient care volunteer for Hospice of Santa Barbara when she was assigned to help the Strong family in January 2009. At the time, Gwendolyn was expected to live only three months more.

"The family stayed inside a lot, and I did things like ironing . . . I did the errands and I did the shopping," recalled Mrs. Hall, a retired script analyst for the film industry. "But as we became better friends, Gwendolyn seemed to be doing better, and we started doing day trips."

Herself the mother of three teens, Mrs. Hall, 55, remembered how much her own kids enjoyed watching the miniature horses up at Quicksilver Ranch in Solvang and took the girl and her mom out for a visit that spring.

"Gwendolyn absolutely loved it," Mrs. Strong said. "The next thing we knew, Gwendolyn was getting her own pony."

That's because soon after, Mrs. Hall decided to procure a mini horse just for Gwendolyn and other kids in the hospice program.

"Her reaction to a miniature pony was so unbelievably different from anything we'd done," said Mrs. Hall. "Her heart rate, her blood pressure, everything went down to a calm state when she was in with a little miniature horse."

Mrs. Hall had also started fundraising for Hearts Adaptive Riding, a local nonprofit that helps veterans and those with disabilities by riding horses. "I had this attraction to equine therapy," she said. "I realized that's the direction I wanted to go in." She searched for about a year to find the perfect pony, finally finding Little Star by word of mouth.

Because of his tiny stature, Little Star, who measures 2 feet tall and weighs 110 pounds, is called a "micro mini." (Micro minis are naturally petite and different from dwarves, which often have deformities and health issues, according to Mrs. Hall.)

Previously, Little Star lived with a man in Ohio who let her roam around inside his house. He even trained the horse to use the toilet and let him hang out with him in his living room while he watched TV, according to Mrs. Hall.

The pony had visited other sick children before, and after Mrs. Hall brought him to Santa Barbara, she took him out for additional trainings to become a certified pet-therapy animal.

In the meantime, another family donated 30-inch-tall Zorro, a companion horse for Little Star. Just like other equines, minis "need to have a companion. They're not supposed to live by themselves," said Mrs. Hall. "They'll naturally develop this habit of cribbing — constantly chewing on things like wood — or pawing if they're alone."

A ranch in Goleta agreed to board the pair, and Mrs. Hall's husband, Patrick, and 13-year-old son, Patrick Jr., helped build a pint-sized paddock for them there.

To help cover the expenses of the minis, Mrs. Hall started the Little Star Pony Foundation with her two daughters, Kaitlin, 18, and Hailey, 16. Together, they've raised about $15,000 to purchase an old Volkswagen van, which they use to cart the two horses around on visits to patients, including other Hospice clients and sick children, when they can't come to the ranch.

The daughters also help out with Gwendolyn's visits to the stables when they can. "I've been so lucky to get to do this in high school," said Kaitlin, a senior at Santa Barbara High School. "Starting the nonprofit and seeing the impact it has on (Gwendolyn) . . . to see her with them is amazing."

On a recent weekday at the ranch, Mrs. Strong wheeled Gwendolyn in her stroller over to a dirt area where Little Star was waiting. The small palomino climbed up on a plastic step stool until he was at eye level with her.

Mrs. Strong helped her daughter grasp onto a carrot with her hand and the two of them fed the pony together.

"That was a slimy one!" said the mother, laughing, as Little Star gulped it down while Gwendolyn watched closely. "He must be hungry, huh?"

"There we go. Thanks, Gwendolyn!" said Mrs. Hall, as Little Star took another carrot from the girl's hand and brushed against her stroller. "He gave you a little thank-you nuzzle."

Next, they helped Gwendolyn clip some small crocheted barrettes into Little Star's mane, which matched the ones in her hair.

"He looks fabulous!" declared Mrs. Hall. "Any dream of being a stallion is totally gone. He gets to play dress up."

Later, they went for one of their "walks." Mrs. Hall strolled with the horse on a leash, while Mrs. Strong wheeled Gwendolyn alongside him. The girl clasped onto a purple leash line that was hooked to Little Star.

"She likes to feel like she's helping," said Mrs. Strong.

Just like other 3-year-olds, Gwendolyn isn't afraid to express when she's bored or wants to be doing something different.

But when she visits "her" pony, she's "so happy, so peaceful with him," said her mom. "She taps her fingers together or makes little sounds . . . It doesn't get old."

"She has about a zillion pony dolls and she wants to name them all Little Star." She also has a video of the horse that she never tires of watching, and every night before going to sleep, she looks at the photograph of him in her bedroom.

Having the pony in her life "really opened up a whole world for Gwendolyn," said her mom. "It's given her something people can talk to her about." Her preschool teachers have talked with the students about her special connection to the horse. They created a book about Little Star to read to the class and it has helped break the ice with other kids who ask her questions about him, which her mom helps answer.

For his part, Little Star seems to act differently with Gwendolyn than with other people.

He can gallop up a storm like a young colt and cavort like horses twice his size. (He put on a demonstration that day in the corral, while Gwendolyn watched raptly from the sidelines.) But unlike some horses, he doesn't startle easily and he's always been docile with Gwendolyn, according to Mrs. Strong.

"He's so gentle with her. It's as if he just knows to be calm around her," she said.

When the two met, "he came up and gave her a little whisker kiss. It was like he was responding to her sound, and Diane had never seen that before."

Added Mrs. Hall: "Sometimes he just lays his head on her tummy."

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