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Gypsy the miniature therapy horse spreads joy among young Nemours patients

<p>PHOTO: Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union</p>

Dequavion Brim, who has cerebral palsy and does not speak, could not verbalize what he thought of Gypsy the miniature therapy horse.

But the 13-year-old’s big, extended grin after touching the horse’s neck and mane in the lobby of Nemours Children’s Specialty Care in Jacksonville told his story.

“He loved it,” said his grandmother and guardian, Evelyn Warren. “That means he’s very happy.”

She commended Nemours — and Gypsy’s owner and trainer Jennifer Pfieffer, a Nemours nurse — for giving patients a brief but welcome diversion from their illnesses.

“This is so great. He is in and out of the hospital a lot,” she said. “This lets them know they are loved.”

Tuesday 3-year-old, 150-pound Gypsy spent an hour or so — with a break at the halfway point to go outside and eat grass — meeting Nemours patients and their parents and siblings. The visit was the first of what will be regular Gypsy encounters inside the building, as the latest form of animal-assisted therapy at Nemours. The therapy does not include riding the horse, but the children hugged and petted Gypsy and posed with her for photos.

Six therapy dogs regularly intereact with patients, but Gypsy is the first horse to do so, said Erin Wallner, Nemours spokeswoman.

“Our goal is that children have a positive experience during their visit to Nemours,” she said. “We hope that the therapy provided by Gypsy’s presence will help to ease fears and reduce the anxiety that can sometimes be associated with a visit to the doctor’s office.”

Pfieffer started animal therapy volunteering in 2003 with a Great Dane named Summit. He retired at 10 years old but then helped her train Gypsy, who Pfieffer purchased at 6 months old.

“It was like a mentor-mentee relationship,” she said.

The training and testing Gypsy went through included all sorts of scenarios she might encounter, such as loud noises and children tugging at her. Registered with the national therapy organization Pet Partners, she has volunteered at schools, nursing homes and libraries and worked with veterans, walked in parades and participated in community events and one-on-one sessions with children on the autism spectrum.

The reactions Gypsy elicits from people who meet her — particularly children — make all the preparation worthwhile, Pfieffer said.

“It makes me warm and melting inside. This is why I do what I do,” she said. “It gives me goosebumps.”

Some of the children who met Gypsy Tuesday were taller than the 29-inch tall horse, but a few, including twins Adeline and Crosby Acord, had to look up at her. The twins, who are almost a year old, had differing opinions about the experience.

“She loved it, he wasn’t sure,” said mother Kathie Acord.

Jonah Hicks, 6, said he was a Gypsy fan after petting her hair and proclaiming it “soft.” His sister, Paris Bennett, 12, was more enamored with her hooves, which were adorned with pink surgical wrap.

“I want shoes like hers,” Paris said, with a grin.

“This was so sweet,” said their mother, Tiffany Hicks. “What a good day.”