Last Friday, Victoria Smith had her third of at least eight cycles of chemotherapy. By Monday, she was back to the work of the Visiting Hooves organization, bringing her miniature horses to visit local nursing facilities.
In July, Smith was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in much of her body. Just a few months earlier her husband, Ron, was declared legally blind. But the couple said despite their personal struggles, their commitment to Visiting Hooves has never and will never waver.
“There wasn’t any discussion of continuing or not continuing. It’s always continuing,” Victoria said. “It just makes too many people happy.”
The Smiths, of Toledo, started the nonprofit Visiting Hooves in 2015. The idea came to Victoria after her parents died within 18 months of each other between 2012 and 2014. When she was visiting them in hospice care, she noticed how many people at nursing facilities seemed lonely and in need of someone to visit.
“I saw so many people sitting around looking sad,” Victoria said.
That’s when she decided to start taking her miniature horse, Chicky, to these facilities to visit people. Victoria formerly worked in horse training for more than 30 years and got into owning miniature horses as a hobby. The visits from the pint-sized horse became so popular, she added her other horse, Takoda, to the visiting lineup.
Today, the Smiths own four miniature horses and eight rabbits that make visits with them. Chicky is still making the rounds and has now logged more than 400 visits and Takoda has been on about 200 visits.
Victoria has trained the horses to be able to handle these visits including: being potty trained for a period of up to two hours at a time; being able to stand very still and not bump into things in a hospital setting; being tolerant of hugging and petting; and not stepping on toes since many residents are in stocking feet or slippers. The horses wear sneakers from Build-A-Bear Workshop on their feet in the facilities and on a recent Monday, even wore Halloween costumes on their rounds, an annual week-of-Halloween tradition for Visiting Hooves.
The arrival of the horses always causes quite a stir with residents and staff alike peeking out to see what the commotion is all about and to get cuddles and sometimes kisses from the horses. About 80 percent of the people Visiting Hooves serve are in memory care, so sometimes every visit is like the first time. But Ron and Victoria remember every person. They remember who likes horses, who had pets when they were growing up and who has an allergy to bunnies. It is the personal connections that makes the work meaningful for the Smiths.
“We meet people that are very interesting and they’re just such nice people,” Ron said. “I think more than anything, they love the animals, but they also like the conversation and the feeling that someone cares.”
Monday’s visit was to Prestige Nursing and Rehabilitation in Centralia. Resident President Barb Todak, who helps arrange activities such as this, with Activities Director Amanda Neal, said being able to visit with these animals and their owners is such an uplifting experience for most residents.
“I love them,” Todak said of Visiting Hooves. “It gives people a lift to have them here. You can see it on their faces how much they’re enjoying it.”
Because he is now legally blind, Ron cannot drive. He said he can see large objects and manages to carefully lead a horse down the hallways, sometimes touching a door jamb or wall to assure himself he is judging his distance correctly. He said his first act when he found out he was blind was to sell his nice pickup truck and buy Victoria a van that would make traveling with the bunnies a little easier. In July, when Victoria was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in more than 12 areas of her body, including both lungs, he said there was never a question in their minds, they were continuing with Visiting Hooves. Talking about his wife’s fight for her life and her inner strength to continue the work they do, Ron momentarily went quiet with emotion.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he said.
While their health issues will not stop them, the Smiths said they have slowed down a bit. They are now limiting their visits to facilities within a 75-mile radius of their Toledo home and Ron said sometimes they have to hold off on a visit if Victoria is feeling very ill after treatments. But they want to be able to continue to provide their services. They are currently fundraising through GoFundMe to be able to renovate a 22-by-24-foot building on their property into a facility where groups could come for on-site visits with the animals. They said it is fortunate they already have the space but the entire structure will need to be remodeled inside to meet code.
“And the permitting alone is pretty expensive,” Ron said.
While an on-site facility is the Smiths’ ultimate hope, they said no matter what, the work of Visiting Hooves will continue as long as they are able. Victoria said every smile, every resident who finds the strength to get out of their bed, every word from a non-verbal patient and every shared memory from someone who sometimes loses theirs is worth the work.
“I love doing this,” Victoria said. “I’m going to be doing this until they’ll be visiting me in the nursing home.”