- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - Koehl is such a confident pony that he just assumes he is a member of the family - to the extent that his owners once invited him into the house for Thanksgiving dinner.

While Gretchen and Jay Heilman and family loaded up on turkey and dressing and all the fixings, Koehl bellied up to a plate of carrots on a counter at the home of Gretchen’s dad, Don Hundt.

Although the 15-year-old Shetland-Welsh pony isn’t house trained, Gretchen said, he provided the family with a reason to give thanks - he didn’t leave any horse apples around the table.

Koehl minds his manners when visiting schools and other indoor venues, she said.

“I think he thinks he’s a big dog,” Gretchen said.

The first horse in the pet therapy program of the Coulee Region Humane Society in Onalaska, Koehl made his first visit in that role at a nursing home earlier this month, the La Crosse Tribune (https://bit.ly/1FEH5Nm ) reported.

He was equally polite, to the delight of residents at Clare Bridge of La Crosse, an assisted living facility that specializes in memory care.

Koehl is among about 70 animals in the Coulee Region Humane Society’s pet therapy program, said Erin Olson, the society’s pet therapy and education coordinator.

The chosen animals are mostly dogs, although they include three cats and now, a pony who thinks he’s a dog.

The animals are especially helpful in memory care facilities, where “people often struggle to hold on to who they are,” Olson said.

Some have fear or anger problems, she said.

“Bringing in animals helps take them out of that mindset and gives them joy,” she said. “Petting is very soothing and calming,” and animals often kindle pleasant memories.

The pet therapy program, which also includes visits to schools, juvenile detention facilities and public events, reached more than 60,000 people last year, Olson said.

The Heilmans, who live on a hobby farm near St. Joseph, have four horses in addition to Koehl. They bought the pony about five years ago, when daughter Maclaine was 3 and wanting a ride of her own.

Koehl was used to being around children under one of his previous owners, an Amish family who used him to pull a cart to take three children to school, Gretchen said.

He hadn’t been ridden much, so initially, Gretchen and Jay and their older daughter, Morgan, led him around with little Maclaine as his passenger.

Koehl proved to be such a reliable pony that Maclaine was able to ride him in events such as barrel racing at horse shoes, Gretchen said.

“Then she moved up to a horse because his little legs couldn’t move fast enough anymore,” she said.

Koehl became a pet therapist because “he needed a job,” and Gretchen herself was “looking for something to give my time back to the community.”

“I wanted to do something animal-related because that is our passion in our family,” she said, noting that the Heilmans participated in about 40 horse shows last year, and Morgan, now 15, has ridden with 4-H drill teams. “We like to spread our love for horses.”

Koehl had to pass muster to become a pet therapy horse, with the humane society putting him through paces to test his calmness under pressure.

“They took walkers and bumped into him and made loud noises, but nothing bothered him,” Gretchen said.

Koehl’s two blue eyes fascinate those he visits because they are a rare trait in horses, especially dark-colored ones, she said.

Indeed, the rarity is confirmed by the Blue Eyed Horse Association, a Rapid City, South Dakota, nonprofit founded to investigate and promote the trait. Some believe that blue eyes reflect wisdom, while others contend it indicates weakness, according to The Horse, a guide for equine care.

The association studies the phenomenon in a quest to “put an end to needless disposal of horses because of this sometimes misunderstood trait,” according to its website.

At Clare Bridge Tuesday, “all of the residents wanted to see his blue eyes,” Gretchen said.

Koehl stirred fond memories for several Clare Bridge residents who have been longtime horse fans, she said.

“It’s a pleasure to share him, especially with schools and nursing homes,” Gretchen said. “They get so excited they don’t want him to leave.”

___

Information from: La Crosse Tribune, https://www.lacrossetribune.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide