Wearing pink sparkly teddy bear shoes, a miniature horse trotted past Wal-Mart employee Linda Eaton.
The horse just had come from the pharmacy section and was headed toward the toys, turning heads and creating smiles as she passed.
“Well, that just made my day,” Eaton said.
With Carol Swinford leading her, Serebella, a 9-year-old rare breed of Falabella miniature horse, was in training.
She’s one of 26 miniature horses owned by Carol and her husband, Gary, at the couple’s Shades of Blue Ranch in Hebron. Carol takes the horses to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, “any place anybody needs a little cheering up.”
“If we can bring a smile or joy to someone’s heart when we go to these places, if only for a moment, that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
On a recent weekday, that place was the Johnsburg Wal-Mart. And Serebella got the job done.
“A horse with shoes!” “Look at that!” “You don’t see that every day.”
Shoppers out for what they thought would be typical runs to the store were greeted by Carol and the white horse with large black spots. Having trained horses since 1998 – before the term therapy horses really was even used regularly – Carol likes to expose the horses to all sorts of sights and sounds.
With glass doors sliding open and shut, bright lights, an array of colorful products filling the aisles, customers pushing carts, Wal-Mart seemed like an ideal training ground.
Carol wants to make sure the horses aren’t startled easily or afraid of anything, such as excited children running up to greet them.
“She’s never been in anything like this,” she said of Serebella, who’s trained for about six months.
“If I could figure out how to hook her up to a grocery cart, she could pull my cart while I’m shopping.”
The Swinford’s Shades of Blue ranch, which has worked with Mane in Heaven – a Barrington-based non-profit group that pairs miniature therapy horses with those in need – is believed to be the only McHenry County ranch breeding and selling the rare, full-bred Falabellas. One of the smallest breeds in the world, they’re seldom taller than 32 inches. The horses originated in Argentina in the 1800s and typically live to be 40 or 45 years old.
Falabellas were bred down from a variety of full-size horse breeds, including thoroughbreds, Arabians and mustangs, to be the size of a pony, but with the disposition of a horse.
They’ve been owned by celebrities, such as Robert Kennedy, Yul Brenner and former NBC president David Sarnoff. Carol has two in training now, taking them out whenever she’s called, at least about once a month, she said.
“I basically stay in McHenry County,” she said. “I’m willing to go anywhere they want me to go.
“It’s such a rewarding feeling,” she said of the joy the horses bring, often to those who could use at least a brief moment of happiness.
She first sought out a miniature horse in 1997, thinking a smaller horse would be less intimidating for her grandchildren to visit. Two weeks after they brought their first miniature, Buddy, home, they were told they’d actually picked up the wrong horse. Unbeknownst to them, they’d bought a Falabella.
They soon fell in love with the intelligent, gentle and friendly breed.
Carol soon will have more horses to train as Serebella’s due to deliver foals in March. She shared the news with Wal-Mart customers, all of whom stopped to smile as the horse trotted by, the rubber souls on her shoes – ordered from a business that makes shoes for teddy bears – keeping her hooves from slipping.
Taylor Veach and her children, 3-year-old Ashtyn and 1-year-old Layton, were able to pet the horse a bit and, like many who happened to pass by, pose for a picture with Serebella.
“That’s a good girl,” Carol praised, as the horse calmly took in all the attention.
“She did beautifully,” she said after the two made the rounds around the store.
The horse was inquisitive, especially when she eyed up carrots in the produce section, but not overly so. With a bit of a tug, she followed Carol’s lead.
“Thank goodness she didn’t have any potty accidents,” Carol said, looking back at her husband Gary, who’d brought a plastic bag and gloves. “My husband is my official pooper scooper.”