As far back as ancient Rome, dogs were used to guard farm animals from wolves and other predators. Centuries later, the descendants of those dogs are still hard at work. Called the Maremma Sheepdog, this Italian livestock guardian breed is particularly good at taking care of sheep and goats. Here in the U.S., Maremmas care for another small animal that needs protection: the Miniature Horse.
Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses is a Miniature Horse farm and training facility where tiny horses, protected by Maremmas, are taught to become therapy horses. Teams of specially trained Minis travel around the country, visiting more than 25,000 adults and children each year at hospitals and hospice centers. They also provide comfort to families, veterans and first responders who have experienced traumatic events. These diminutive equines have been called in to help survivors and first responders immediately after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. They have also comforted victims of tornadoes, child trafficking, fires and hurricanes.
When these special horses are home on their 15-acre farm in Gainesville, Florida, they are watched over by two adult and three young Maremmas, all of whom protect the small horses from coyotes and loose dogs. One of those young Maremmas, a puppy named Sirius, has become quite close to a colt named Mercury.
“Our Maremmas are very devoted to the herd of therapy horses, but Mercury and Sirius have an unusual relationship and are very bonded with each other,” says Gentle Carousel education director Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. “Sirius and Mercury became instant friends. Maybe it was because they were both babies at the same time, or maybe it was because Mercury’s mom was very comfortable with Maremmas and didn’t mind Sirius spending time with her foal. They started playing together and, when they got tired, sleeping together.”
Now, whenever Mercury comes inside the farmhouse, Sirius is not far behind. “Mercury, with his tiny little hooves, needs to practice walking on different floor surfaces,” Debbie says. “Sirius has huge fluffy paws that look too big for his body. He needs to practice good indoor manners.”
The pair is learning how to walk up and down steps together, ride in a truck around the farm, and to walk and stand on a lead. When Mercury travels for a hospital training visit with his mother, Sirius waits on the farmhouse porch for him to return.
“The therapy horses of Gentle Carousel are on the very small side of Miniature Horses, many weighing under 100 pounds,” Debbie says. “Maremmas are a large breed of dog, so when Mercury and Sirius are adults, they will be about the same size.”
The best part of their friendship is that they will be able to maintain it for the rest of their lives.
“They will always be able to live on the farm together,” Debbie says. “They will remain forever friends.”
Thumbnail: Photography courtesy Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.
Award-winning writer and editor Audrey Pavia is a former managing editor of Dog Fancy magazine and editor of the AKC Gazette. She is the author of The Labrador Retriever Handbook (Barrons) and has written extensively on horses as well as other pets. She shares her home with two rescue dogs, Candy and Mookie.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!