Love comes in all shapes and sizes. For Linda Wagner, it comes in miniature and walks on four hooves.
Wagner lives in Newton and is a school counselor in Park City who loves helping people and working with horses. Last year, she combined those two passions into her nonprofit organization, Lil'bits of Love Miniature Therapy Horses.
The miniature horses that Wagner uses are Bucky and Bella, who are both four years old. Bucky and Bella are specially trained to be calm in crowds and have been to school classrooms and carnivals, community events and nursing homes.
"Their job is to make people happy," Wagner said. "When we go into the nursing home, it's amazing to see people — their spirits brighten up, they smile, they start to talk and tell you stories."
The emotional therapy of petting an animal lowers a person's heart rate and decreases stress.
When Wagner was asked by a nurse to take Bucky over to a resident of a nursing home, she readily agreed.
"He wasn't able to move his hands well by himself, so I took his hand and we petted Bella," Wagner said. "He had the biggest smile all over his face."
The nurse was surprised and told Wagner the man hardly ever smiled.
"It's just one of the reasons why you do it," Wagner said with a smile of her own.
Miniature horses were originally bred to do work in the coal mines of Europe, so they are comfortable around people, are able to learn quickly and will stay calm in situations that might frighten a bigger horse.
"Training them basically consists of exposing them to the things they might see at a nursing home — wheelchairs, walkers, machines that beep, people that might yell," Wagner explained.
Wagner and Bucky are registered with Pet Partners, an organization that evaluates volunteers for animal-assisted interactions.
While Bucky came trained, Wagner took courses to learn how to train Bella. She taught the miniature horse simple commands that are similar to basic commands for dogs — "up," "shake," "stay," and "leave it."
"If somebody drops some food on the floor, they can't go get it," Wagner explained.
Abigail, Joanna and Lydia Asher are sisters who volunteer several hours each week to help Wagner care for and train the horses. Abigail built the Lil'bits of Love website as a high school project.
There are more specialized "tricks" that the miniature horses are taught as well, such as backing up between pieces of furniture, accepting tight hugs and not reacting to loud, unexpected noises.
To demonstrate their learning, Joanna dropped an aluminum trash can lid on the cement barn floor. Both horses barely flinched.
Before taking Bucky and Bella to meet people, they are given a bath and dressed in non-slip shoes. Wagner trained the miniature horses to go to the bathroom on command in her horse trailer so that no mess is made inside or outside the places they visit.
Because it is difficult to bathe the horses in the winter cold, Wagner said she probably won't schedule any visits for the miniature horses until it warms up.
"A little bit after spring hits, we shave them so we can get them really clean when we go for visits," Wagner said.
Bucky and Bella can also come to birthday parties, and Wagner brings items for children to "dress up" the miniature horses and take pictures with them.
"We are a non-profit, so we do this for free. We do take donations, if people want to help," Wagner said.
For more information about Lil'bits of Love Miniature Therapy Horses, visit http://www.lilbitsofloveminis.org