- Associated Press - Thursday, November 6, 2014

DOUGLAS, Wyo. (AP) - Malcolm Gray wheeled down the hallway of his trailer park home in Douglas, the only home in town with wheelchair accessible ramps and 30 hay bales on the front porch, the one with the backyard that lost its grass. He’s a scrawny 44-year-old with a George Washington smile, plaid pajama bottoms and wiry glasses.

Malcolm was once a Marine Corps mechanic. He once painted cars and worked on houses, was once the guy you called to fix problems. Before life in a wheelchair, before mandatory afternoon naps and daily doses of muscle relaxers and psychological pills, Malcolm once played soccer, once rode horses.

Four years ago, Malcolm was nearly beaten to death by his roommate. Both were alcoholics. Malcolm awoke from his coma with a feeding tube in his stomach, holes drilled into his head and no recollection of the incident. He jumped out of his hospital bed, fell and broke his shoulder. His brain had forgotten how to walk.

The roommate received 30 to 45 years in prison. Malcolm received a lifetime confined to a wheelchair, a speech impediment, a debilitated left side and post-traumatic stress disorder.

After the injury, Malcolm fell into depression. Five months ago, his wife, Heidi, noticed an increase in explosive anger. He wasn’t socializing. He spent his days in front of the computer. His service dog, a black and white Great Dane named Shelby, was having health problems.

Heidi was desperate for a solution. After weeks of research, she found one.

Malcolm wheeled down the narrow hallway, through the kitchen and the living room, and opened the back door.

“Daaaaaaanny,” he yelled.

The clickety-clats began, like a tap dancer prancing up the ramp. It took five seconds for the footsteps to reach the door. She had mocha hair and a dirty blonde mane, black marble eyes and long blonde eyelashes.

Meet Danny Girl, Malcolm’s service mini horse.

Danny was born four years ago on a farm in Colorado, nearly one month before Malcolm’s injury. Heidi found her with a quick Google search, and a few weeks after receiving permission from the city and landlord, Danny Girl was theirs.

She arrived in a truck at the end of July, a gray pinto, 31-1/2 inches tall, about 250 pounds. She stepped off the truck and immediately approached her new owner.

“I’m thinking she sensed something was wrong with me,” Malcolm said.

Danny was not trained to be a service animal, but mini horses are quick learners. According to federal disabilities law, a service animal doesn’t need a government license or certification. Instead, it must simply assist a person with a disability.

Danny is potty trained. She watches NASCAR with Malcolm. She picks things up for him. Just a few weeks ago at a friend’s house, she kept standing in between her owner and a stranger like a bodyguard.

“I took it as her looking out for me,” Malcolm said.

The mini horse lives in a tiny house in the backyard. Heidi and her son built it with Malcolm’s help. Danny sleeps on a bed of newspapers with the comics deliberately placed on top.

Her diet is hay, along with any blade of grass she hasn’t already eaten in the backyard. She has a pink and red toy ball that Shelby the Great Dane likes to steal, as well as a green water tank that Shelby likes to drink from.

It took some time, but the two finally get along.

“(At first, Shelby wanted) to play with Danny, but (Danny) didn’t take it as playing,” Malcolm said. “(Danny) reared up and blasted her one.”

Shelby lives inside the trailer home. She’s taller than Danny. When released into the backyard, she sprints in all directions, jumping and practically tackling every person in her path, wiping slobber on shirts and pants along the way.

“For his PTSD, it’s very hard for him to stand (Shelby’s hyperactivity),” Heidi said.

“(We) can’t control something that big anymore,” Malcolm added.

Danny is docile. She rarely jumps, is calm and is expected to live until her 30s or 40s.

“One service animal for the rest of my life is better than five dogs that unfortunately pass away,” Malcolm said. “(Danny will) probably outlive me.”

Malcolm fitted Danny with a purple halter and a purple leash. The two moved their way down the hallway to the front door. The floor of the trailer house is rigged with shingles, wide strips similar to sandpaper, because Danny and her hooves slid like Bambi in the first few days.

The two moved down the ramp, Heidi close behind carrying a walker. They met at Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital in Casper, where she worked as a nurse. After Malcolm was relocated to a different hospital, they kept in touch. They grew close and Malcolm eventually proposed in a letter. “Screw it. Let’s get married,” read one of the lines.

Once all three made it to the street, Heidi tied a belt around Malcolm’s waist to keep him balanced. She tied Danny’s leash to a handlebar on the walker.

Malcolm stood, his legs shaking. He gripped the walker, taking 2-inch steps. The tremors in his legs intensified, but Danny was at his side, also taking 2-inch steps, never leading, always following.

Their daily walk takes them from the vanilla dumpster to the speed bump, about 30 yards in total. If you stand too close to Malcolm, Danny will turn her head and stare you down.

Everybody in town knows the mini horse, especially the Douglas police. A few days after Danny’s arrival, she jumped the fence in the backyard and roamed around town until a neighbor notified authorities. The Douglas Police Department Facebook page posted a picture with Danny from that night.

“Night shift = Bar fights, DWUI’s, loud parties…. and the occasional ‘horse whispering….’” the post said.

The way Malcolm says “Danny” is endearing. He coos it, stressing the “Dan,” ending with a whispered “E.”

His depression has drastically improved since a mini horse entered his life.

“Just having her around has given me purpose,” Malcolm said.

After fully training Danny, Malcolm and Heidi plan to start their own mini horse training business. He wants to help others like him, even bring mini horses to hospitals to raise the spirits of patients.

Following the walk, Danny helped Malcolm do the one thing doctors said he could never do again. Heidi removed the belt around his waist, and untied the leash. She positioned Danny perpendicular to his wheelchair.

Malcolm grabbed a handful of mocha hair with each hand, pushed all his weight on her back, and stood. Cars drove nearby. A neighbor sat on his front porch. A squirrel crossed the street.

It would only take a simple distraction for Danny, a slight movement in either direction, and Malcolm would topple to the ground.

The mini horse didn’t move.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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