- Associated Press - Monday, December 21, 2015

CEDAR SPRINGS, Mich. (AP) - Vivien Bignal sat in a chair, hands folded in her lap, silently looking out her window at Metron of Cedar Springs.

On this recent blustery day, Bignal, 87, was missing the comfort and familiar surroundings of home, she told The Grand Rapids Press ( https://bit.ly/1lrnn55 ). It would be a few more days before she would leave the nursing care facility to visit her family. The wait seemed long.

Then came a knock at the door.

Ronica Froese stood there with an unusual visitor - a miniature horse about waist-high, He stood quietly, and sported some interesting tennis shoes with football-themed laces. He wore a harness decorated with his name: Charlie.

Bignal welcomed the colorful duo, looking a bit apprehensive at first.

It’s not every day a horse walks into your bedroom.

But Bignal’s face softened as she stroked Charlie’s long mane. He gently nuzzled her hand, his big eyes unwavering.

“You’re a pretty boy. Yes, you are,” Bignal said, speaking softly in words directed just to her small visitor.

Froese and Charlie, who together make up the “Little Horses Big Smiles Therapy” team, were soon on their way down the hall. Bignal’s smile lingered as she spoke of animals she once owned at a different time in life. She may not have been home, but there, in those few moments, she was at peace.

Those reactions have brought Froese’s own life a new sense of meaning. A horse owner for years, she had heard about fledgling horse therapy programs and considered buying one of her own. But she knew little about how to train the special kind of animal.

Froese, 34, began to search online and found a small breeder not too far away, in Hamilton. She recalls picking Charlie up and talking with the breeder, who was skeptical about such advanced training.

But Froese found, through Facebook, a network of miniature horse owners focused on the type of therapy she was looking to do. She looked at the questions people were asking, the responses, and asked some that she had, too.

Though there are over 200 therapy miniatures in the U.S., only a handful are in Michigan.

She and Charlie began focused training at her home in the Newaygo area and Froese found him to be the perfect companion. Calm and relaxed, little seemed to bother Charlie. He came to trust her, to pay close attention.

Froese looked to Pet Partners, considered to be a leader across the country in animal-assisted therapy. She learned what it would take to become a registered therapy team through the organization and put in the long hours of work to be sure Charlie was fit and ready. He went on to pass the skills and aptitude evaluation test for proper registration before starting therapy visits within the last year.

Charlie is fully housebroken. He is bathed within 24 hours of every therapy visit and is kept very clean, Froese said.

At 18 months old, he is working with seven different care facilities around the greater Grand Rapids area and beyond. He will soon begin his first hospital visits. He rides right along with Froese in the cab of her truck and will occasionally accompany her on trips to the store.

At home, Charlie stays in a converted barn but is frequently inside Froese’s house, playing with her dog and interacting with her son.

He’ll eat apples, carrots and sometimes acorns. Sometimes hamburger buns with a little mayonnaise. But mention a cookie or let him catch sight of a striped peppermint candy and he’ll maintain a quiet focus on the hand or pocket where the treat lies. He knows what really tastes good, Froese said with a laugh.

“For me, this has been the best journey ever. It’s healed my soul. I didn’t realize how much companionship you can get,” Froese said of working with Charlie. “The relationships we’ve made with people are just unbelievable … I just didn’t know we could make people smile the way we do.”

Froese for a while was contacting care homes to offer Charlie’s therapy visits. Now, she’s hearing from places that are asking them to come.

Recently, Marianne Bergstrom began following along, shadowing Froese. She heard of horse therapy several years ago and was given two horses earlier this year. Where once Froese was asking questions of others, she now is in a place to answer those, to help instill her own passion for equine therapy in another person.

Bergstrom plans to have her horses accompany Charlie to observe. Eventually, they’ll be available for their own visits.

“Just to be able to bring joy to people - it’s so genuine,” said Bergstrom, of Comstock Park. “It just warms your heart to be able to bring smiles and genuine laughter.”

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Information from: The Grand Rapids Press, https://www.mlive.com/grand-rapids

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