DECATUR — You just never know when a new best friend is going to canter into your life.
So, there was Jayne Mattingly, relaxing in the giant living room of Decatur's Victorian Woods independent living complex the other day, when she glanced up and met the soulful eyes of Winnie the miniature horse.
Now, on the face of it, suddenly finding a horse in your living room doesn't sound like a recipe for discovering an instant stable mate.
For starters, there is the height and age difference: Winnie is just 18 months old, while Mattingly has seen 70 summers gallop over life's horizon. And while Mattingly is no giant, she managed to tower over the diminutive equine, who measured just 30 inches tall from the base of her shampooed and conditioned mane to the Victorian Woods carpeted floor.
But with Mattingly sitting in a chair, the horse's long head was nearly on the same level and the smiling woman's gaze got locked and lost in Winnie's lovely brown eyes, impossibly huge and deep, and resident human and visiting tiny horse bonded.
After several minutes of head and neck rubs and the occasional kiss from Mattingly, a clearly contented Winnie - who can do that horse sleeping-standing-up thing - was having trouble maintaining her eyelids in the upright and locked position.
"Soft noses and sweet hearts, they just give unconditional love," explains Mattingly, who remembered the magic of being around full-size horses from back when her children were young. "Horses taught me a lot."
Ever heard of those assisted therapy dogs that bring comfort and joy to people by allowing themselves to be petted and by their sheer relaxing, cuddly presence? Heartland Mini Hoofs does the same thing, only with wee horses you can fit inside a multi-residence living facility's elevators.
Retired nurse and social worker Andra Ebert founded the nonprofit Mini Hoofs enterprise two years ago and has taken her soulful-eyed team, who wear form-fitting diapers for deposit-free excursions, on trips to senior living facilities, hospital wards and anywhere where there's someone who might welcome a visit.
"This is our 112th visit this year," she announces to the Victorian Woods appreciative all-female audience. "And I'm really excited because we are just getting ready to start a program called 'Just Say Whoa to Bullying' for grade school kids."
This initiative involves the horses looking into the eyes of fascinated children and riding classroom herd on a message that says nice kids corral bullying tendencies and learn to get along with each other. Chances are, the little persons will be so busy falling in love with the horses and wishing they could take one home, there won't be any time for bad feelings towards their peers.
The Victorian Woods visit, meanwhile, is drawing to a close in a flurry of reluctant, parting hugs that cocoon Winnie, Bailey and Jasper like rock stars leaving a concert.
Ebert, 57, who relies only on donations to support her nonprofit operation, says there is more than one kind of wealth to be found in the great horse race of existence.
"See that?" she asks, glancing round at the Victorian Woods sea of smiling human faces. "That's why I do this; I really believe these little horses look into your soul."