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Mini horses bring larger than life smiles to Alzheimer's patients

"Every month is different. Every time we visit it’s something new and exciting for them and they light up any room that they walk into.”

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's hard not to smile when you see mini horses and donkeys. So when they waltz into an assisted living facility in Farragut, the residents have the same reaction.

They're not your typical visitors. As Julia Stewart, the volunteer coordinator for Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding, or STAR, says:

"Miniature bodies, large personalities," Stewart laughed.

These mini horses and donkeys know how to turn around a frown.

"It's just really hard not to smile when you see a miniature walk in with some shoes on and some weird hat," Stewart said, pointing out the Halloween costumes and Build-A-Bear shoes on the miniatures' feet.

The residents at Avenir Memory Care at Knoxville love making those memories. It's an assisted living facility for people with Alzheimer’s and like Dementias. 

Thelma Diggs is a resident at Avenir and took great joy in petting each mane.

"I like you, you're a joy," Diggs smiled.

The smiles never fade.

Maddie Conrad, the activities director at Avenir, always looks forward to the monthly mini visit.

"It's like something new every single time," Conrad said. "You'd be surprised. It's like 'oh wow this has never happened before!'"

The animals visit every month from STAR in Lenoir City. The therapeutic riding academy offers various programs and types of therapy, like Minis in Motion. The miniature horses and donkeys at STAR go on "field trips" to places like schools and care facilities to provide personal development and emotional well-being.

"What better way to bring something different to people and you know instead of having them come out to the farm, we can bring these guys to them and visit with residents in their home," Stewart questioned.

"I'll tell you it's wonderful to think that a horse would come and visit you," Diggs exclaimed.

It's the love their day needs

"I think it encompasses a lot of things, but part of it is just definitely that warm feeling you get when you see them," Stewart said.

Warm feelings and compliments. Especially from Bobby Jean Griswald.

"You're a beautiful girl," Griswald said as she pet mini pony Honey. "I think you're the prettiest one in the whole bunch."

Making memories for the day is something the residents and minis can get on board with.

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