Miniature-equine therapy center in Cerrillos delights visiting kids - Albuquerque Journal

Miniature-equine therapy center in Cerrillos delights visiting kids

Liam Mohan-Litchfield, 7, right, uses sign language to read from a Dr. Seuss book as classmate Xavier Montoya, 8, and Thor, a miniature horse, take in the story. Liam and Xavier are students at the New Mexico School for the Deaf. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

CERRILLOS – Serafina, a 6-year-old miniature donkey, is known for her gentle demeanor and intuitive response to those in need. But on a recent afternoon she was having what may best be described as a donkey day. She did not want to move and she wasn’t.

Serafina is one of four miniature equines at My Little Horse Listener, an equine-therapy center that specializes in helping children overcome challenges ranging from reading difficulties to the trauma of domestic abuse.

On this particular day, Serafina and her cohorts – miniature horses Thor, 8, and Hot Dog, 9, and miniature mule Melly, 4 – were being prepped for a visit with a group of first and second graders from the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. Serafina, however, was standing just inside a barn that opens onto the facility’s corral and had apparently decided that’s the only place she needed to be – maybe forever.

But then the bus from the school drove up to the corral and stopped. Serafina’s long ears went into radar mode. She turned, walked to the corral gate and stuck her muzzle through it as eight kids filed off the bus.

Kids. Turns out all Serafina needed was a good reason to move.

Aniella Wilding, 7, a student at the New Mexico School for the Deaf, visits with Thor, a miniature horse, at My Little Horse Listener. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

‘Magical interaction’

Liz Daigle Delfs, executive director of My Little Horse Listener, founded the organization in Santa Fe in 2016. It moved to its present site in Cerrillos in 2021. Daigle Delfs, who once worked in special education law, started My Little Horse Listener to help children with reading disabilities.

“Children with reading disabilities don’t read aloud,” she said. “But they would read aloud to my equines, who are extremely nonjudgmental.”

She soon came to realize that the reading aloud was not as special as “the magical interaction” between a child and the miniature animals.

“We had 15 girls from Girls Inc. here and one little girl, 8 or 9, was walking by herself,” Daigle Delfs said. “She didn’t seem to have a friend in the group. Serafina went over to that little girl and just stayed with her.

“Another time, there was a little boy, 6 years old, who had stopped talking, maybe because of his autism or because of trauma suffered at home. We brought Serafina to him and he began to connect with her. Then this little boy who had not been talking came up to me and said very clearly, ‘Does Serafina like carrots or apples better.'”

Now, in addition to its reading program, My Little Horse Listener offers the therapeutic benefits of sharing time with its sweet-tempered and patient miniature equines to:

⋄ Children who are undergoing serious medical procedures and their families.

⋄ Parents and children whose relationship has been damaged by situations such as substance abuse.

⋄ Mothers and children who have suffered domestic abuse.

⋄ And children who are lonely and need a friend they can trust.

A nonprofit organization, My Little Horse Listener is funded by donors and does not charge for its services.

“We are all about kids who cannot afford opportunities like these,” Daigle Delfs said.

R.J. Nava, 8, in chair at right, a student at the New Mexico School for the Deaf, uses sign language to read to Melly, a miniature mule, at My Little Horse Listener in Cerrillos. R.J.’s classmate, Paul Van Gunten, 8, center, and teacher Kim Burkholder, left, provide support. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Building language

The children from the School for the Deaf have different levels of hearing loss. Some can hear with the aid of hearing aids and communicate by speaking. Others with more severe hearing loss, including total deafness, communicate by signing. Teachers and an interpreter accompanying the group signed as staff and volunteers at My Little Horse Listener talked to the kids.

“When animals have something to say, they use their bodies to tell us,” Daigle Delfs told the children. “Does anyone know what Serafina is thinking right now?”

“She wants to know how to sign,” a kid shouted out.

The kids were at My Little Horse Listener to read to the miniature animals. Two kids were assigned to each of the equines. Some of the children read the words from their book out loud and others signed to the animals.

“We are looking for opportunities to build language,” said Kim Burkholder, first and second grade language arts teacher at the School for the Deaf. “The more positive experiences they have about reading, the better. They can’t hear, so they are learning English through reading. Some are late language learners because their parents did not know sign when (the kids) were younger.”

Burkholder believes interacting with animals is good for all children.

“It gives them a connection to the non-human world,” she said. “They feel completely accepted by these animals.”

Literary tastes

All the kids had gotten to know Serafina, so Daigle Delfs introduced the rest of the equine team.

“There is something very special about Hot Dog,” she said of the brown miniature horse with a small white spot on his back. “If you ask him if he wants a treat, he can nod his head.” Hot Dog, however, was too busy munching hay to back up Daigle Delfs’ claim with a demonstration.

Daigle Delfs told the children that Melly is a mule, explaining that means her mother was a horse and her father was a donkey.

And then there is Thor, a white miniature horse.

“Thor has one blue eye and one brown eye,” Daigle Delfs said. “He is very handsome and likes to be told he is handsome. Look at his ears. They are always moving.”

Xavier Montoya, 8, and Liam Mohan-Litchfield, 7, are assigned to read to Thor.

Liam used sign to read from Dr. Seuss’ “The Foot Book.” Thor seemed focused on Liam’s moving hands.

“He was paying attention,” Liam signed after he finished the book. “But I don’t think he could pick up my sign.”

Xavier read out loud from a book about the Hulk, which everyone thought appropriate because the Hulk and Thor, the horse’s namesake, are members of the Avengers, Marvel Comics team of superheroes.

“I think he liked the book,” Xavier said. “He tried to eat it.”

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