Little Horse, Big Smiles

Sassy, a Pet Partners registered therapy animal, brightens everyone’s day wherever she goes.

The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway’s 16-mile multi-use paved trail is enjoyed by bikers, walkers, runners, skateboarders, people walking their dogs and Sassy the mini-horse. Sassy, a 34-inch paint miniature horse, can frequently be seen strolling along the Greenway paved trail with owners Cathy and Alan Roberts.

“When we first started walking Sassy on the paved trail, people flocked to her,” says Cathy Roberts. “People just couldn’t get enough of petting her and just being around her. And I noticed everyone was smiling the whole time. And Sassy enjoyed all the attention too. That’s when I first started thinking of getting her certified as a therapy animal.”

Diane Paradiso and Dalie with Cathy Roberts and Sassy

The Roberts, who are originally from Pennsylvania, retired to the Ocala area in 2017 and own a 10-acre farm in Morriston. In addition to 15-year-old Sassy, they also have Fancy, a trotting-bred pony; standardbreds Powdered Donut and Brown Sugar; Jack, a Morgan/Tennessee walking horse cross and Sandpiper, a Rocky Mountain horse. The couple enjoys riding their horses and Cathy will go out in sulkies with Sassy and Fancy.

“I had thought over the years of making one of our golden retrievers into a therapy animal. But that never worked out,” she explains. “Then, when Max, our last golden retriever, died in January 2020, Alan and I weren’t sure we wanted to get another dog. Alan suggested maybe adding a mini-horse to our home. We saw an ad for a mini-horse for sale in Lake Panasoffkee, went to look at her and bought Sassy right away. That was in April 2020. Then, of course, COVID hit and everything slowed down.”

The more time Cathy Roberts spent with Sassy, she began to think she might be the therapy animal she had been looking for; not that there wasn’t a learning curve.

“We had to teach Sassy to trust us while doing simple things like picking up her feet to clean them,” Roberts notes. “She just hadn’t been taught much, but she did learn to trust us. And her calm personality started to come out more and more. So off to the Greenway paved trail we went, where it became more and more obvious that Sassy could be a therapy horse.”

She shared one experience where Sassy was mobbed by a group of young girls, who petted and hugged her for close to an hour.

“By the time those little girls were done loving on Sassy, they had braided her long mane,” she says, laughing. “It was just precious. And I knew then that I wanted to move forward with the therapy animal project.”

 A Good Match 

Through her research on therapy animal organizations, Roberts found Pet Partners. Established in 1977 as the Delta Society, the Bellevue, Washington-based 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization became known as Pet Partners in 2012. The group boasts of being the first to establish comprehensive standardized training for therapy animal handlers and their pets. Pet Partners registers nine species of animals for therapy service, including dogs, cats, equines, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, birds, miniature pigs, llamas and alpacas. Pet Partners is represented by registered therapy animal teams in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

“Our mission is to improve the health and well-being of people through animals. We pride ourselves on the strength and high standards of our program for handlers and their pets,” says Allison Younger, the senior national director of communications for Pet Partners. “First, the handler has to go through a strenuous testing program before they and their animal are then evaluated together as a team.”

Sassy greets Theresa Slifer with Alan and Cathy Roberts

If the handler and their animal pass the evaluation, they become Pet Partners registered.  

“We use the term registered rather than certified,” Younger pointed out. “Once an animal therapy team is registered, they are allowed to only do two hours of therapy visits per day. And a team must be re-evaluated every two years. Everything we do is to keep everyone and the animals involved safe and happy.”

Roberts decided to go with Pet Partners and began the online handler course this past summer. Prospective handlers can progress at their own pace with the online course.

“It is a very thorough handler program. You watch videos on different aspects of handling your pet during visits and then take a test after each. You have to pass one lesson before you can move on to the next,” explains Roberts, who finished the course in two months. “There is also a final test that covers everything that you have to pass before moving on to the in-person team evaluation.”

Once Roberts passed the online handler course, she had to put she and Sassy on a list for the team evaluation and wait to be assigned a Pet Partners volunteer evaluator. On Saturday, September 30th, she and Sassy drove to Jacksonville for their evaluation with Laura Kusumoto. It should be noted that Sassy rides in style in the Roberts’ van, not in a horse trailer. The couple took out the back seat in their van and put down rubber mats. Sassy rides standing up, with her head in the space between the two front seats, enjoying the air conditioning blowing on her. There is a portable ramp for Sassy to get in and out.

Pet Partners uses rooms at The ARC facility in Jacksonville on weekends for the evaluation testing. Other people and pets are brought in to stage the scenarios. Roberts and Sassy had to go through a series of exercises and different scenarios to test their readiness to be a therapy animal team. The duo was graded on such exercises as: Accepting a friendly stranger, walking through a crowd, reaction to distractions, angry yelling, reaction to a neutral dog, being approached by a staggering man, staying in place, exuberant and clumsy petting and gently accepting treats.

“Cathy is a warm and friendly person. As a handler, she is very supportive of Sassy. And in the five years that I’ve been an evaluator, I’ve never seen an equine, regular or mini, like Sassy,” offers Kusumoto. “She was so curious and aced every interaction she was put in. After Sassy finished her evaluation, she noticed other teams being evaluated in another room and wanted to go in there to see what was going on. Cathy and Sassy make a great Pet Partners team and I know they will spread joy wherever they go.”

From left: Jack and Theresa Slifer, Sassy and Cathy and Carol Demme with Navi and Karma

For Roberts, the successful Pet Partners evaluation was the culmination of a goal she set for Sassy and herself.

“Sassy did great; we passed the evaluation and received our Pet Partners Volunteer Registration Card,” she says. “I was very proud of her and happy we accomplished what I hoped to do.”

At this writing, she was planning to move forward with Sassy as a Pet Partner therapy team.

“This whole process has really opened my eyes about how much Sassy has helped me and how much she can help other people just by her presence,” Roberts adds. “At the top of my list are visits to veterans’ hospitals and reading programs with kids. But no matter where I take Sassy, I know she will bring happiness and smiles.” OS

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