LAKE IN THE HILLS, Ill. | When Jodie Diegel ties the sneakers on her 2-year-old's feet, it's usually not a struggle until the fourth foot.
That's because most horses aren't used to wearing tiny rubber-soled shoes made for stuffed toy bears.
But Diegel's four miniature horses are becoming more accustomed to those shoes, as well as to the attention they get as a therapy animal. Diegel founded Mane in Heaven, a nonprofit pet therapy organization featuring her four horses that are the size of golden retrievers.
"It's the same reaction everybody has when they first see the animals," she says. "The first three words to come out of their mouths are, 'Oh my gosh!'"
The size of the horses is unexpected, and the fact that they are wearing sneakers and a halter with their name written in crystal "bling" across the nose always gets a reaction.
"Aside from looking very cute, they actually provide a functional purpose," Diegel explains about the little round shoes. "When we go on a linoleum or tile floor at a facility, without something like the sole of a shoe, it would be very slippery for them."
Diegel, her four board members, and the three eldest miniature horses have all passed the evaluation process of Pet Partners, a national organization that determines whether animals and handlers are ready for visits to places such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
"We're founded with the mission to train them as therapy animals," Diegel says, adding that miniature horses are now also being used as guides for vision-impaired persons. "What's really exciting is to see my vision and my mission coming to life with these miniature horses."
She and 43 committed volunteers meet every weekend at Dynasty Farm in Lake in the Hills, where the "minis" are boarded. There, volunteers get to know the horses and to train to be handlers. Part of the training includes desensitizing the horses so they ignore the natural impulse to flee from danger, like that presented by a rolling wheelchair. The horses are taught to behave in a variety of settings.
Diegel laughs and admits that sometimes it's easier to train the horses than the people.
"They are absolutely amazing little animals," she laughs. "But I am totally amazed at the commitment and ability of our volunteers. It's a joy to watch the interaction."