DANVERS, Mass. ─ Maggie, the miniature horse, started pet therapy at age 8 months, according to owner Nancy LeBaron-Kiley.
“It just happened,” she said after a nurse spotted Maggie at the stable and asked if the horse could visit her patient.
LeBaron-Kiley, a former Peabody, Mass. dog officer, agreed. The man had loved horses, and the nurse thought seeing Maggie would boost his spirits.
That first encounter seven years ago revealed Maggie’s therapeutic powers. More nursing home trips followed.
“She put such smiles on their faces,” LeBaron-Kiley said. “Little horses seem to know,” she said, how to behave around someone ill or elderly. She has observed her horse watch her hooves and take care not to bump or step on anyone, she said.
The horse also enjoys the socializing, she said.
“Maggie loves doing it,” she said. “She loves people.”
Best of all, she has heard how patients who have not spoken a word in years saw Maggie and talked to her.
Before long, word about Maggie spread, and she was in demand, LeBaron-Kiley said.
The Beverly (Mass.) School for the Deaf made Maggie their mascot and gave her a sign language name. The children press three fingers — three for the letter M — to their cheeks and stroke to mean the kissing horse.
She’s also mascot to other organizations. The area Kiwanis club has invited her to appear as a guest “speaker,” and North Shore Magazine picked Maggie for their top 100 “people” list.
“She’s become quite a little icon,” laughed LeBaron-Kiley.
Last weekend, Maggie showed up for another good cause. This time, Danvers (Mass.) High students invited her to sell kisses at their fundraiser to buy bullet-protective vests for police dogs.
Danvers High students Ashley Keough, 17, and Rebecca Pomerantz, 16, organized the benefit, which included a bake sale and a movie screening of “My Friend Flicka.”
The idea to invite Maggie came from their teacher Jackie White, the students said.
They told her they wanted to help animals, and came up with contacts at the Massachusetts Vest-A-Dog Foundation.
Rebecca did not know how much money the event raised, but she hoped to bank half one vest’s cost.
“One vest costs $735,” Rebecca said.
Maggie’s kisses sold for a dollar, and she had plenty of takers.
Youngsters waving bills raced over, while the horse, swaddled in a blue blanket, braved the 32-degree temperature.
One customer, Cierra Hill, 7, scrunched up her face and giggled. This was her first kiss from a horse, and she didn’t know what to expect.
Everyone laughed, including Cierra, when the black and white horse planted a smooch on her cheek.
LeBaron-Kiley, a former Peabody, Mass. dog officer, fed the horse breath mints between kisses and coaxed her not to nibble on little fingers.
“Pat her right on the nose,” LeBaron-Kiley told 4-year-old Haydan Kreschollek of Danvers.
When she bought Maggie, LeBaron-Kiley wanted to bring a horse back into her life and train her to compete at driving trials.
“I’ve always had horses,” she said, but when her last big horse died, she took “a couple of years to get over him.” She bought Maggie from Florida’s Dent Ranch on the assumption a miniature horse would suit her budget. Maggie’s food costs about $50 a month, she said, and she can travel in a minivan, instead of needing a big rig.
They do compete successfully in the driving events, LeBaron-Kiley said, but pet therapy seems to have become Maggie’s calling.
Pictured: Maggie, the miniature horse, follows instructions from owner Nancy LeBaron-Kiley, right, and delivers a smooch to Cierra Hill, 7, of Pembroke, N.H., while Britney Hill, also 7, looks on. Photo by Margo Ann Sullivan.