Rescue group uses mini horses to raise spirits
By DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org April 16, 2012 10:05PM
Miniature horses from Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County visited the home of Ben Huizenga in Manhattan. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Illinois Horse Rescue of
For more information or to make a donation to Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County, visit www.illinoishorserescue.org or call (708) 258-3959.
Updated: May 18, 2012 8:00AM
MANHATTAN — Even something as seemingly simple as petting a horse would be a challenge for 16-year-old Ben Huizenga.
Ben, who is wheelchair-bound, suffers from Rasmussen’s syndrome, a seizure disorder he was diagnosed with at age 3. It has left him with brain damage and paralysis on his left side.
But on a recent bright, beautiful spring day, Ben was able to pet and feed a couple of miniature horses right on his front lawn. Surrounded by his 10 brothers and sisters, as well as several nieces and nephews, Ben stroked the animals’ coats and let them nibble grass and mints from his palm.
“This is wonderful,” said Ben’s mom, Jenn Huizenga. “There are very few family activities you can do with a special-needs child that involve the whole family, with everyone doing the same thing at the same time.”
The horses, transported to the Huizengas’ Manhattan home by Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County, were big enough to cause a stir in the neighborhood but small enough to not intimidate even the smallest fan.
Tony Pecho, founder of the rescue and outreach group, has trained the horses to walk up stairs and, residents willing, go indoors (wearing special boots, of course). With temperatures in the mid-70s, however, the family was only too happy to meet the animals on their expansive lawn.
“We do this a couple of times a week for children with special needs or for people who are sick and can’t get out,” Pecho said. They’ve visited the homes of handicapped children, cancer patients, even adults who are down on their luck.
“We’re as much about saving people as we are about saving horses,” Pecho said.
Pecho doesn’t charge for the house calls to homes where a special-needs or sick child resides.
The group is supported by donations. It also offers boarding and riding lessons. It has participated in a variety of local events, including Harvey Days and St. Patrick’s Day festivities at Balmoral Park in Crete. Balmoral will host an all-you-can-eat buffet fundraiser for the group on June 30. Tickets cost $50 in advance, $55 at the door.
In the fall, three miniature horses were donated to the rescue. Because of their size, Blondie, Brownie and Cookie are easier to transport to people’s homes. They also give people who cannot stand on their own the opportunity to get face to face to a real horse.
“Animals in general are therapeutic,” said Malerie Kusay, who volunteers with the rescue and arranged to have the minis visit the Huizengas. Kusay’s boyfriend is Clarence Huizenga, Ben’s older brother.
“There’s something about horses,” Kusay said. “They’re special because they’re different and because you don’t see them all the time. People just seem to love them.”
Ben was no exception.
“It’s good stimulation for Ben,” Kusay said. “It keeps his mind working and makes him happy. Even feeling the horse with his hands is good for him.”
Jenn Huizenga said she was impressed that an organization would visit the homes of special-needs kids simply to bring joy and comfort.
Kusay added, “This rescue is all about people and horses. That’s what makes them great.”
Pecho said it costs about $500 a month to run the miniature horse program. With donations on the wane, he’s hoping the Balmoral fundraiser will give them a boost.
“This is important,” he said.
Times are tough for the horse industry, he said.
When people fall on hard times, their animals often suffer. Pecho said he gets calls regularly from people reporting horse neglect or abuse.
Bringing those equines back to health is a financial struggle, especially when he insists on continuing to fund his outreach programs.
He relies on an army of volunteers who come to feed the animals, clean the stalls and do whatever else it takes to keep the rescue running.
“We insist on keeping high visibility, using lots of volunteers, so that the public understands we truly do care and that we are definitely taking care of these horses,” Pecho said.
Too many news reports about horse owners-gone-wrong have made his job even more challenging.
“But we’ll keep at it,” Pecho said. “When you see these kids’ faces, it’s all worth it.”