To elicit a smile from every person you pass by in the hospital parking lot, it helps to walk alongside Tony Smalls.
Tony is a 30-inch-tall, 220-pound black miniature pony, and he’s the hit of Windemere. His owner, massage therapist and horsewoman Annie Parsons, has been bringing him here every other Thursday for the past 18 months. Horse and owner clearly love their volunteer work as much as the senior citizens they come to visit.
Annie brings Tony to the hospital in a small trailer, and dresses him for his visit before entering. He wears a discreet poop-catching sack under his tail, its nylon harness camouflaged under a saddle blanket reading “Therapy Pony at Work.” He also wears overshoes on his hooves for anti-slip protection on the interior floors; the two front hooves sport sneakers that Annie ordered from the Build-a-Bear website. Annie herself, dressed in black riding gear with brown boots, carries a bag of horse pellets on her hip, which she’ll be dispensing to him while he’s being nuzzled and loved up by Windemereans.
Everyone in the building smiles at Tony, as Annie brings him, via the freight elevator, up to the second floor. Betsy Burmeister, Windemere’s recreation therapy director, greets them and is near at hand for their visits. Betsy and Annie met years ago, when Annie was taking care of Betsy’s dogs; Betsy has been the RTD for 24 years and knows a good visitor when she sees one. Windemere receives all manner of nonhuman visitors, as long as they’re well-behaved, have all their shots, and respond to voice commands. Most visitors are dogs, but there has been one cat, and in the summer, Island Alpaca makes an appearance. Clarissa Allen once brought a bottle-feeding lamb, and a pot-bellied pig had a birthday celebration here. Annie used to bring her donkey Neil in for visits, but stopped when he didn’t seem to be enjoying it much. Tony Smalls has been coming for the past year and a half, and clearly enjoys it a great deal.
The entrance to the residential section of Windemere has a sitting room with a gas fire in the fireplace. A parade of about nine people, mostly in wheelchairs and walkers, come out to meet the pair. Annie leads Tony around to be petted and patted, and sometimes grabbed or squeezed, all of which he is a good sport about. He is the perfect height to be embraced by someone in a wheelchair. Some of the residents are silently absorbed in touching him; some pat him while talking to him; others are just as eager to chat with Annie as they are to greet her pony. A fabulous collection of smiles brightens the room. People share anecdotes and memories of their own youth, sometimes of riding horses, of admiring them, or living on farms.
After about 15 minutes in the common area, the duo make rounds, going into rooms of bed-bound or shyer patients, where Annie enters with a cheery, “Hello my love, you want to see Tony?” They always do. Some want just a moment, but others would happily keep their hands entwined in his mane all day.
Annie Parsons is a force of nature. A wash-ashore who grew up on a farm outside Oxford, England, she has a British knack for witty banter, a nose ring, and multiple equestrian- and archery-themed tattoos. As well as working as a massage therapist (for humans, dogs, and horses) she also performs, competes at, and teaches archery on horseback. Yes, you read that right. She comes from a very horsy family — her father trained “problem horses,” and her sister, once an amateur jockey, is now a trainer. “A friend I met on my travels around the world told me that M.V. was a great place, so I came here for a summer and worked at Misty Meadows as a trail guide on horseback,” she says. After doing that for several summers, she met her husband, Islander Jeremy Jones, and moved here. Jeremy is a dog trainer, and gives free lessons to anyone who adopts from the local shelter.
Tony, despite his diminutive size, has a large personality. Annie got the friendly 9-year-old gelding about a year and a half ago from Vivian Flanders, when Vivian decided to downsize her herd of miniatures. “He’s such fun,” Annie says heartily. “He enjoys life, and he picks up things so fast.” Annie had wanted to learn how to train a horse to do tricks, and Tony’s aptitude and enthusiasm demonstrates how good she is at it: He can paw for treats, rear high on his back legs (at full height he is still shorter than Annie), do a low rear that resembles the dressage move levade, spin in circles, fetch toys, and pluck laundry from a clothesline to put into a basket. But perhaps his most useful trick is saved for fundraisers: If anyone holds out a greenback (he is not fussy about the denomination), he will come to them, snatch it away in his lips and then drop it into a bucket. They raised $360 that way for the Animal Shelter Garden Party, and well over $200 for a fundraiser at Misty Meadows Therapeutic Riding Center, where they also make regular appearances. “I like to take him to cocktail parties,” says Annie. “He’s better at socializing than I am.”
Because of Tony’s thick winter coat, he gets hot quickly, so after about 45 minutes with the Windemere residents, he and Annie say their goodbyes and head back out toward the hospital parking lot.
“Ever let him in the house?” asks a nurse they pass while exiting.
“Yes,” says Annie buoyantly, with a chuckle. “My hubby, my poor husband — I let him in the house too.”
As Annie liberates Tony from his shoes and harness for the ride home, she talks about his work with special-needs kids and a surprise appearance he made at a Facebook friend’s hotel room during chemo. “If you hadn’t already guessed it, I’m totally in love with him,” she says. She’s not the only one.
Check out Tony Smalls for yourself on his Facebook page: bit.ly/TherapyPony.