Tiny Horses Bring Silver Lining to Cancer Patient

My world turned upside down after I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in July of 2021. My family has no history of cancer and if it wasn’t for an unrelated checkup, I never would have known there were tumors growing around my thyroid. Fortunately, I caught it early. The cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes yet, but following my total thyroidectomy with an incredible team at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of my vocal cords was left paralyzed and I lost most of my voice. I went from a normal, healthy 26-year-old to someone reliant on medicine to live and a megaphone to be heard.

The COVID-19 pandemic and my vocal cord paralysis made my experience excruciatingly more difficult. Because of COVID-19 regulations, I wasn’t allowed to have my family or an emotional support animal in the hospital before my surgery. Because I had no voice, I couldn’t communicate normally with my friends and family after surgery. Cancer, and the subsequent removal of it, isolated me from everyone. Making matters worse, the shock of a cancer diagnosis traumatized me to the point of neuroticism—I began “seeing” cancer all over my body. The weeks following my thyroid removal were hellish, to say the least.

Toni’s miniature horses were a silver lining in that whole ordeal. When you’re an adult with cancer, the nicest thing you get is ribbon swag. Even though you feel every bit a child sitting in the pre-op room, waiting to be cut open, you don’t get a visit from Batman or an all-expense-paid trip to Disney World. Adults get online support groups and, occasionally, gift baskets.

I reached out to Toni on a whim, figuring that, like many other things, a miniature horse visit was exclusively meant for pediatric patients. I was wrong! Toni, unquestioning, opened her doors to me (quite literally, since the farm is essentially her backyard).

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Before talking about the animals, it’s necessary to talk about Toni.

You need only speak to Toni for five minutes to get a sense of the unwavering passion she has for what she does, and of the boundless patience and strength that enable her to do it. She immediately struck me as the kind of person I would want if I ever had to herd several horses, each of whom has a distinct personality and a shared fondness for getting into places they shouldn’t be, into a van.

Toni rescues horses. More impressively, she rescues dwarf horses, who often come with a host of health problems and special needs that their towering counterparts do not have. This means that Toni dedicates oodles of time, money, and energy into ensuring that these horses, many of whom come from neglective or abusive owners, live happy, healthy lives (which can last up to 35 years!). She does this all from her home, which, in addition to Mr. Buttons, Winston, Idaho, and Peaches, houses two cats, three bulldogs, and Oscar, the rescue pig.

On top of the rescue missions, Toni organizes hospital, nursing home, school, and veteran visits with the horses. She does so free of charge. Toni also graciously welcomes strangers, most of whom are sick, disabled, or young, into her backyard to have one-on-one time with the animals.

Equine therapy has been shown to have tremendous benefits in health and mood, including lowering blood pressure, alleviating anxiety, and regulating emotions. An hour with Toni’s horses, then, is an invaluable resource to those struggling with any sort of illness or disability (or just an overall bad day).

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The horses themselves are sweet, curious, and sociable. They love nibbling at shoelaces and nuzzling up for attention. They also love to play, which is a joy to watch especially when the dogs and a big rubber ball get involved. It’s shocking that anyone could harm something that is so docile and loving. And unlike regular-sized horses, which can be intimidating at times (especially for someone like me, a nervous wreck), there is no risk of injury or fright. It’s hard to do anything but love them. Best of all, I didn’t need to speak to engage with them; they came right up to me (and my shoelaces) and accepted my pats, strokes, and selfies right away.

My voice has since come back but I will always remember what that visit with the miniature horses meant to me. I will also remember what someone like Toni means for countless of others—horses and humans alike—who need a loving hand or a furry friend. —Danna A. 

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