Tiny but Big Impact

09/30/2022 01:22 AM By Lisa Anderson
From the Paddock
Jorge Garcia-Bengochea
Jorge Garcia-Bengochea with Ranger Scout
Story by Cynthia McFarland • Photos submitted by Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses

Tiny but Big Impact

Mini Therapy Horses Bring Comfort to Many

On any given day, Jorge Garcia-Bengochea spends most of his waking hours surrounded by pint-sized horses. He wouldn’t have it any other way. As founder-and-handler of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, Jorge has made it his life’s mission to help people in need with his four-legged ambassadors of comfort.

Born in Cuba, Jorge was just 9 months old when his family came to the U.S. in 1959, relocating to Central Florida where Jorge has lived ever since. “My father was doing some work with Americans in Cuba and was invited to come work for an engineering organization in Gainesville. I appreciate that my parents made some tough decisions, changing countries like that,” recalls Jorge, whose parents are both still alive.

“We’re very proud to be part of this country; we feel very blessed to be here,” he adds.

When he was 9 years old, Jorge was involved in a terrible accident. “I was riding my bike home from a baseball game and got hit by a car. I was in the hospital for about 10 days. It was pretty traumatic,” recalls Jorge, who suffered a fractured skull, broken nose, and broken browbone.

“There are still sights, sounds, and smells in a hospital that bring back memories of when I was hospitalized,” says Jorge, whose own experience gives him great compassion for the people—especially children—he regularly visits in health care settings.
Jorge with Takoda
Jorge with Sweetheart

Enter Equines

Although he’s always enjoyed animals, Jorge grew up in a town and was never around horses as a child. However, his wife Debbie Garcia-Bengochea was a “horse kid.”

Jorge’s own introduction to horses was indirect, but ultimately led to making equines his life focus. In 1997, he and Debbie began working with foster and at-risk children. Because of the emotional issues of many of the children, the couple was exposed to EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) programs.

EAGALA involves no riding but uses sessions on the ground with horses to help those dealing with anxiety, trauma, depression, behavioral disorders, domestic abuse, and addiction. “We saw that equine therapy was very powerful and that there was a good response from the kids,” says Jorge. “It was the kids who got us to try horses for therapy reasons, not that we were into horses and wanted to try them for therapy with kids.”

After seeing first-hand how effective equine therapy can be, Jorge began considering how he could take that help directly to people, rather than have them travel to the horses. “It’s one thing to go to a farm and visit big horses, but when you have a small horse that can come into your environment and interact with you, it can be very special,” he expounds. “We wanted to go where children are, and we’d also received some requests to visit bed-bound people, both elderly and young.”

Going Small

Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit charity in 2008, but Jorge and Debbie have been working with horses and therapy since 1989. “When you work with a miniature horse, they’re less intimidating, and they can come into your space,” notes Jorge, adding that kids who’ve never been around horses are often more accepting of miniatures than full-sized equines.

After buying their first mini horses in 1984, Jorge and Debbie eventually began breeding their own to have exactly the type of horses they knew would be best for therapy. “We have a team of 20 horses now, and no, they don’t live in our house,” laughs Jorge. “They live like regular horses in a barn and a herd environment in the pasture.”

Of all the Gentle Carousel horses, the most well-known is probably Magic, the charismatic mare with a shiny black coat and blue eyes. She’s even a Breyer Portrait Model Horse. Now 15, Magic has been with Jorge and Debbie since they bought her at 4 months old. Jorge says Magic has a special affinity for the youngest kids.

Among her many awards, Magic has been recognized as “Most Heroic Pet in America” by AARP, “One of History’s 10 Most Courageous Animals” by TIME Magazine, and “One of Seven Most Notable Animal Heroes in the World” by The Daily Mirror in 2014.

National Recognition

Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses has received national recognition as an award-winning non-profit organization. They depend solely on donations to travel and serve where needed.

Among their many community contributions, these tiny horses comforted survivors and first responders after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and the Surfside condo collapse. In addition to child trafficking victims and tornado and hurricane survivors, the horses regularly visit patients at children’s and veterans’ hospitals.

An immense amount of time and training goes into preparing these petite equine “therapists” to navigate unpredictable settings—going into elevators, walking up stairs and along hospital hallways, and much more. Jorge does all of the training and loves handling the horses in every scenario. “It really comes down to trust and relationship. We don’t ask the horses to do anything they’re not comfortable doing.

“It’s an honor to introduce people to these special animals,” says Jorge humbly. “Just seeing the reaction of people is what makes me feel it’s worth all the effort.”
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Lisa Anderson