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Tiny heartthrob: Therapy mini-horse brings oversized joy to Nebraskans

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Posted at 10:54 AM, Jul 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-22 11:54:40-04

DAWSON COUNTY (FLATWATER FREE PRESS) — The heartthrob has skinny legs, wild hair and a laid-back personality that captivates everyone he meets, from preschoolers who want to touch his head to great-grandmothers who ask him for a kiss.

They may be drawn to his brown, soulful eyes or the bangs that hang over his broad forehead and into his eyes. Or maybe it's his stylish accessories: A cowboy-style red bandanna reflecting his rural roots or the reindeer antlers headband and flashing red nose he wears at Christmas.

This much is certain: He makes an impression whenever he walks into a room in his snazzy black-and-white sneakers.

All four of them.

Carson Lamphear sure noticed on a mid-May morning when he was the first member of his Little Disciples Preschool class at Cozad's United Methodist Church to exit the building, turn the corner and spot Jet in a patio next to the playground.

“Why is that horse wearing shoes?” Carson shouted as his 3- to 5-year-old classmates, and teachers followed close behind.

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Jet drew a variety of reactions during his May 17 visit to the Little Disciples Preschool at Cozad's United Methodist Church. As usual, Jet's black-and-white sneakers were the first things the students noticed.

That salutation made it easy for Teri Edeal to begin telling the children about Jet, her chocolate brown miniature therapy horse.

His stylish sneakers ordered from Build-a-Bear are mostly worn for safety. Without them, walking on hard floor surfaces would be like walking on ice for Jet. Edeal added foam inserts to help keep his sharp hooves from cutting through the shoes.

Jet is trained to lift each foot, one at a time, so Edeal can tie a shoe around each tiny hoof after they arrive at schools, senior independent and assisted living homes and workshops for people with disabilities. Even with his cooperation, it's a “horeshoeing” challenge.

“People know he has these shoes, so even if we're on carpet, they want to have me put his shoes on,” Edeal said with a laugh. Laughter is a thing you hear a lot of when you hang around Jet – Edeal and her special horse bring that to nearly everyone they meet, including people who are lonely or need an extra reason to smile.

Five-year-old Jet demonstrated his talents to the Cozad-area preschoolers. He shook their hands. He played a toy keyboard with his nose. Then most children took turns brushing and combing his hair. Carson was most interested in brushing Jet's teeth, as earlier demonstrated by Edeal.

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The Cozad-area students at Little Disciples Preschool had the opportunity to brush or comb Jet's hair. While Rosie Walker, right, combed the wild hair on his forehead, Carson Lamphear insisted on brushing Jet's teeth as he had seen Teri Edeal do in her earlier presentation.

Teacher Abby Kugler said Jet's visits are valuable because any new experience is good enrichment for young children.

When he’s away from his adoring fans, and at home in his barn on a pasture hill north of Overton, Jet is happy to just be a regular old horse, albeit a very tiny one.

Teri Edeal and her husband, Brian Edeal, a retired farmer, recently moved to their new home after residing at Johnson Lake for 20 years. Teri Edeal retired three years ago after 31 years spent as a federal resource conservationist, where she helped farmers and ranchers better conserve their rangeland.

The house, an indoor riding arena and barn are all connected, and surrounded by 800 acres of Edeal family pasture.

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Jet at home in a barn he shares with other animals on Brian and Teri Edeal’s land near Overton. After retiring, Teri Edeal got Jet and trained him as a therapy animal, in part by enrolling him in a puppy obedience class. It’s a serious commitment – miniature horses like Jet can live past 30.

Jet's best buddy in the barn is a cinnamon brown miniature horse named Bear, who has been a pet for more than 20 years. “He's not a therapy animal, but he's loved by my 12 grandkids. And he's a great companion to Jet,” Edeal said.

The other four-legged family members are a year-old Sheltie named Rocky; two cats; and three full-size horses used for pasture rides in the pasture and trail riding events.

The big horses tower over Jet, who is five years old and 30 inches tall. “He's not a pony,” Edeal said of her 160-pound miniature horse. “Ponies are more compact and a miniature horse has the proportions of a full-grown horse.”

Miniature horses also tend to have nicer dispositions than Shetland ponies, who can be headstrong and uncooperative.

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At Brian and Teri Edeal's new home on a pasture hill north of Overton, Jet is happy just being a horse. His four-legged friends include his best buddy Bear, an older miniature horse, and three full-size horses – Chrome and Ariel are in the background - used by the family for trail riding.

Miniature horses like Jet are a breed with a height-based standard of 38 inches or less as measured from the top of the withers (ridge between shoulder blades) out and at a right angle down. Bear is about one inch too tall, so he can't be registered even though his mother was a miniature horse.

Teri Edeal's goal in retirement was to share her love of horses with others. Her husband suggested she get a therapy horse.

She looked online. Most older miniature horses she saw cost around $1,000. Someone offered her 3-month-old Jet for $300.

She still hesitated because it’s a long-term commitment: Miniature horses can live into their 30s. But when Jet's original owner lowered the price to $100 and then offered him for free, Edeal knew that training the tiny horse as a therapy animal was what she needed to do.

It wasn’t easy to get Jet registered by the Pet Partners Therapy Animal program. He was calm when Edeal got him from the Dannebrog farm where he was born, but only “kinda” halter broke. He had to be neutered.

She took an unusual training route with Jet, enrolling him in a dog obedience class in Kearney because Edeal thought he needed to get out and see people. He graduated in June 2018 after demonstrating his ability to pay attention and follow her, while paying no mind to all the puppy chaos during class and testing times.

More specific therapy horse behaviors were taught at home. Potty training was the biggest challenge, in part because there’s not a lot of information out there on how to properly potty train a horse.

Edeal's training tools were treats, a clicker and puppy potty training mats. It took six to seven months before she took Jet places without worrying much about accidents. She still brings a bucket filled with cleaning supplies along on every therapy visit.

Now, Jet holds it until they get to an appropriate outdoor place and Edeal uses her clicker. Or he relieves himself on a rubber mat that lines the back seat of her crew cab pickup, where he rides when they travel.

That’s right: Jet rides in the back seat. He jumps into the back seat when entering, but uses a wheelchair ramp as a safer way to exit.

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Jet doesn't ride shotgun when he and Teri Edeal travel throughout central Nebraska and beyond to make therapy horse visits, but he has the back seat of the crew cab pickup all to himself. He jumps in when it's time to go, but uses a wheelchair ramp to safely exit.

On the night before or morning of an event, he gets a bath, has his whiskers and bottom of his ears shaved, leg hair clipped and feet cleaned. He gets a thorough brushing and a spray-on hair treatment used on livestock show animals.

Fresh breath is a must for a horse who gives kisses. Edeal uses a normal toothbrush and homemade toothpaste - try finding horse toothpaste in any store – that is a mix of artificial sweetener, peppermint extract or leaves and water.

The pair traveled approximately 7,000 miles and visited 120 different places from North Platte to Crete – some more than once – in their first year as a therapy team. Someday, Edeal would like to add Children's Hospital in Omaha to the list of places Jet has visited.

“He likes affection. Wheelchairs don't bother him. Walkers don't bother him. He doesn't mind being petted by people who can't always control their hands and doesn't react when people yell. Kids can mob him,” she said.

Some of his most important visits have been to people in hospice care. “He just knows to be quieter and to come up close. He's so gentle with them,” Edeal said.

One woman's family invited Jet to attend her funeral.

Edeal and Jet stayed home for most of 2020 and 2021, when the places they visit greatly limited outside visitors because of COVID-19.

They resumed visits this year, including their monthly visit to Avamere at Lexington, an independent and assisted living home.

Laurie Zarate, the home’s activities director, said Avamere residents are excited to see animals – there are only a few birds in an aviary at the home – and some especially look forward to Jet's visits.

While Jet had to polish some of his therapy horse behaviors before returning to work, he remains mellow, charming and willing to befriend all strangers.

Although he never seems unhappy on the road, he starts to whinny when the pickup gets within a mile of home and his horse buddies.

Edeal and Zarate enjoy watching older folks react to Jet, including some who tell stories about living on farms and caring for animals, including horses.

Edeal laughed about the time they approached the room of a woman who always wants to see Jet and overheard her tell someone on the phone, “Oh, I'm sorry I have to go. My horse is here.”

When Jet stopped by Bertha “Bert” Pedersen's Avamere room on May 17, she petted him and said, “He's very nice, isn't he? We lived in the country and rode horses to school. We'd be two on a horse. My brother would get on and I'd get behind him.”

Down the hall, Ken Hendricks, 98, and his wife of 78 years, Ruth, 96, said they've known Jet for years. “We love him. We were friends with him probably before he was a year old,” Ken said.

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Ken and Ruth Hendricks, who have been married for 78 years, have enjoyed visits by Teri Edeal and Jet ever since Jet first became a therapy horse. Monthly visits to the Avamere assisted and independent living home in Lexington stopped in 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, but have resumed.

As Ruth pulled Jet's face up toward her's, she answered yes when asked if Jet can make her swoon a bit. “He's a charmer, that guy,” Ken added.

Edeal acknowledged that she felt depressed during the long months when COVID kept her and Jet from visiting people. Getting back on the road has lifted her blues.

“If you can bring a little joy to someone, golly, it's well worth it,” she said with a smile.

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