The miniature black horse with a white nose and a flowing mane trotted into a room in Nashville’s Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Some of the kids were in wheelchairs, some wore masks, some were hooked up to IVs, but they all squealed with excitement. “I can’t believe there’s a horse in the hospital!” a boy said. On this day, instead of undergoing challenging medical tests and procedures, these kids got to have fun with Magic the miniature mare.
Magic is a member of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, an all-volunteer charity, based in Gainesville, Florida, and run by Debbie Garcia-Bengochea and her husband, Jorge. Teams of therapy horses work with families who have experienced traumatic events. Each year, the animals interact with more than 25,000 people of all ages in hospitals, hospice programs, schools, libraries and mentoring programs. They also visit education resource centers in high-crime neighborhoods and attend literacy events.
This diminutive mare has a special way of knowing who needs her the most. She trots over and gently puts her head on their shoulder. She’s won numerous awards for her work, including being named one of Newsweek’s10 Most Heroic Animals of 2010 and one of Time’s 10 Most Heroic Animals. Last year, Magic celebrated 10 years of service. Here are some of the highlights of her career so far.
Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting: Newtown, Connecticut
The December 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School shocked the close-knit Connecticut community and the world. Debbie answered her phone the day after the tragedy. “Could you come?” a town administrator asked.
Debbie didn’t hesitate. “We’ll be there.” Magic had never traveled so far before. She and two other horses would make the long trip. Debbie and Jorge gathered blankets and provisions to keep the horses warm—they were used to sunny Florida, not snowy Connecticut in winter. A professional horse-transportation service donated its time, and on December 18 the team set out on the more-than-1,000-mile journey.
A few days later, Magic waited to greet children in the Newtown library. No one knew what to expect. “Even if there’s only one child, we’re here to comfort him,” Debbie said.
That day the library room filled, and the line kept growing. By the end of the day, more than 600 people had shown up—not only kids, but entire families. As they each took their turn, Magic nuzzled close and at times felt their tears on her neck. They needed healing, and Magic was there to help. The horses stayed in Newtown for two weeks, spending time with Sandy Hook students and their families and first responders.
Tornados: Moore, Oklahoma
On May 20, 2013, a powerful EF5 tornado ravaged Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City. With winds gusting to more than 200 miles per hour, it killed 24 people and obliterated homes and schools.
Magic and the team arrived in Moore on May 25. They visited with a group of children who had been trapped in their school during the terrifying storm. On May 31, Magic was scheduled to meet with a little girl who was faced with the heartbreaking ordeal of attending her best friend’s funeral.
The horses were loaded into the trailer, ready to go meet the girl. Jorge and Debbie ran into the hotel to grab something. The lobby was eerily quiet. Everyone was staring at the television. Warnings flashed across the screen—another tornado was coming their way. There was no safe place for Debbie, Jorge and the horses.
Debbie and Jorge jumped into the truck and took off down the highway, trying to outrun the storm. Roaring wind chased after them. Debbie looked up at a monitor on the dashboard, which allowed her to view the horses in the trailer. They were casually munching hay. Their training had taught them to be calm, even during a tornado.
At last Debbie and Jorge pulled into a truck stop to wait out the storm. When it passed, they had the same thought on their minds. “We have to go back,” Debbie said. A little girl was counting on them.
Back in Moore, they stared out the truck window, shocked at the devastation. The tornado was the widest in U.S. history, and its path of destruction stretched more than 16 miles. The hotel they’d been staying in was damaged and uninhabitable. Still, they met with the girl and her family in the best place they could find, a nearby parking lot. Magic trotted right up and put her head in the girl’s lap. She hugged the horse tightly. Debbie hoped that somehow Magic would give the girl the strength she needed to get through the difficult days ahead.
Gold Star Families Event: Ocala, Florida
Magic visits veterans in hospitals, assisted-living facilities and hospices. Another way she serves veterans is by participating in events for Gold Star families—immediate relatives of members of the U.S. armed forces who have been killed in action.
Last May, Magic attended an event for Gold Star families at a park in Ocala, Florida. Debbie paid special attention to the children. One seven-year-old girl sat by herself, quiet and withdrawn because of the loss of her father. “Would you like to take Magic for a walk?” Debbie asked.
The girl took one of the leads attached to Magic’s harness, while Jorge held firmly onto another. They walked around a grassy area. Debbie and Jorge attempted to fade into the background and let Magic do her work. Something about walking with the horse often helps people open up.
Eventually the young girl started talking to Magic about her father. “He took me to the movies,” she said. “We ate ice cream together.” They moved slowly down a path. “He got me some Barbie dolls for Christmas.” The girl put her face close to Magic’s and whispered, “He said he would come back.”
Debbie reached over and squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “He would have if he could,” she said. The girl looked up, her eyes wide, and nodded. At the end of their walk, she hugged Magic—a tender start to a long journey of healing.
With her uniquely empathetic personality, Magic is the one the volunteers count on to reach people in the most difficult situations, whether they are children with life-threatening illnesses or first responders haunted by a mass shooting. Her presence not only comforts, it heals. Couldn’t we all use a little Magic in our lives?
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