If you are an 81-year-old former horsewoman, wheelchair-bound and tethered to an oxygen tank, what would really make your day?
Why, a horse, of course.
Betty Highley got the surprise of the decade on Thursday when she rolled out onto the front terrace at Blue Bell Place in Montgomery County.
There, with her two handlers, was a miniature horse named Penelope. Eight years old and 38 inches high, the animal was a special visitor for Highley, who once raised and jumped horses, and longed to see one again.
“I think I am going to pass out,” said Highley.
The visit was arranged by Emily Cuff, community life director of the personal-care facility on DeKalb Pike in Blue Bell. Just for fun, the press was invited.
Donna and Kelsey Beers of Penelope’s Helping Hooves in Bedminster, Bucks County, own Penelope and eight other horses. Of the animals, Penelope is most adaptable.
During the visit, mother Donna Beers and daughter Kelsey kept careful track of Penelope who is chestnut-colored with white socks above brown hooves. For the occasion, the horse wore a special diaper.
Highley hugged the horse, talked to her, combed the animal’s mane and told stories about the old days on her farm in Skippack where she raised horses and kids before trading the rural life for a home in West Norriton. She has lived at Blue Bell Place since 2009.
“I haven’t felt this happy for at least ten years,” said Highley. “I feel like I could get on a horse and ride.”
Highley said as each of her children stopped riding, the horses were gradually sold to new owners. Her favorite, a filly named Molly B., went to a 4-H member.
Entered in competitions, “she won and won and won,” Highley recalled. Penelope reminded her of Molly B., Highley said, only without the white blaze Molly had on her face.
Penelope was headed for the slaughterhouse when Donna Beers rescued her seven years ago. Because the family lived in a development at the time, Beers decided to train her for pet-therapy work as a way to justify her existence in suburbia.
Penelope took to the role quickly, and was certified by the Delta Society, which promotes the bond between pets and people.
The horse seemed to understand that she must be gentle and still in the company of frail elderly people and autistic youngsters. Over the last seven years, Penelope has visited hospitals, nursing homes, and classes for children on the autistic spectrum.
“She inherently knows what she’s supposed to do,” Donna Beers said.
Pet-assisted therapy, the practice in which animals visit frail, ill or isolated patients, accompanied by their owners, typically brings dogs, cats, rabbits and even ferrets as visitors.
Cuff said that Blue Bell Place often sees therapy dogs, but never a horse.
A month from now, Donna and Kelsey Beers will return to the facility with Penelope - and a special cart in which some patients can ride. Eventually, the Beers family hopes to make the cart wheelchair-accessible.
Penelope can haul 600 pounds behind her, but only 40 pounds on her back so only a very small child can ride her, Donna Beers said.
The horse seems to like the company of seniors.
And vice versa.
“She’s adorable,” said one older woman who timidly stroked the horse’s soft neck.
“I wish I had known. I could have brought my hamburger for her from lunch,” said another. Everyone laughed.