Unlikely Besties: Dog and Miniature Horse Become “Instant Best Friends”

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Unlikely Besties: Dog and Miniature Horse Become “Instant Best Friends”
Miniature therapy horse and sheepdog share adorable bond

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Sometimes, a bond transcends obvious differences. Such is the case with Sirius, a sheepdog, and Mercury, a blue-eyed American miniature horse.

Like his equine friends at Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, Mercury is a tiny, trained therapy horse, working in hospitals and hospice programs and with families who have experienced traumatic events.

Sirius is a Maremma sheepdog, an Italian livestock-guardian breed. On the farm where Sirius lives, a team of eight adult Maremmas known as “the Guardian Angels” help protect the tiny miniature therapy horses. The dogs live with horses as part of the herd and are deeply bonded with their diminutive equine friends. But an individual attachment like that shared between Mercury and Sirius is unusual.

“Mercury and Sirius are different” says Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, Education Director at Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses. “They became instant best friends.”

Mercury was born on the farm just three months after Sirius. Wherever Mercury went, Sirius was not far behind. “Mercury, with his tiny little hooves, needed to practice walking on different floor surfaces,” recollects Garcia-Bengochea. “Sirius had huge fluffy paws that look too big for his body. He needed to practice good indoor manners.”

Together, they learned how to walk up and down steps, ride in a truck around the farm, and to walk and stand on a lead. When Mercury traveled for a hospital training visit with his mother, Sirius would wait on the farmhouse porch for him to return.

Maybe it was because they were both babies at the same time. Maybe it was because Mercury's mom was very comfortable with Maremmas and didn't mind Sirius spending time with her foal. They started playing together, and when they got tired, sleeping together.

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The Maremma Sheepdog
Photo Yaunna Sommersby

“Maremmas are an active breed that need a job to do to stay happy,” says Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, Education Director at Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses. “They are independent thinkers and behave very differently from herding breeds or livestock guardian dogs that patrol…they feel a strong attachment to the animals they protect.”

The breed dates back over 2,000 years to the Italian region of Abruzzo, where they protected herd animals from thieves and wild predators.

At the farm, due to the small size of the miniature horses, predators can pose a risk to the herd. Coyotes have become an increasing problem on farms near Gentle Carousel, even in daylight hours—but not at Gentle Carousel.

“If one of the dogs barks out an alarm, the entire team of dogs come running, ready to stand together against any intruder,” says Garcia-Bengochea. “Nothing tells predators that they are not welcome like a team of Maremma sheepdogs!”

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Now both full grown, the two are almost the same size—Sirius weighs about 100 pounds; Mercury is 120 pounds. (The therapy horses of Gentle Carousel are on the very small side of miniature horses, many weighing under 100 pounds.) The pair even look alike. Maremma sheepdogs are usually solid white—but not Sirius, who was born with spots. Mercury has spots, too, and an unusual pattern: three white legs and one grey leg; one white ear and one grey ear. “It’s hard to tell them apart from a distance when they are moving together,” says Garcia-Bengochea.

As adults, their bond remains undiminished.

Mercury and Sirius work together at Gentle Carousel reading programs focused on young, at-risk readers. Sirius is the only dog to attend the reading programs with the horses. The duo even has their own children's book with a positive message about friendship. Meeting them helps bring the story to life for the children.

“There is always laughter and excitement,” says Garcia-Bengochea. “They teach an important message for the times: just because we are different doesn't mean we can't be friends.”

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Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses

Based in Ocala, Florida, Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses is an all-volunteer-based non-profit and one of the largest equine therapy programs in the world. Teams of tiny horses visit over 25,000 adults and children each year, bringing hope and brightening days. The therapy horses have comforted survivors and first responders of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. They helped the tornado survivors of Moore, OK, families in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, and families and first responders after the condo collapse in Surfside, FL. Each year they visit thousands of patients in children's and veteran’s hospitals across the US.

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» Mini Horses, Mighty Hope, a new, inspirational book about the therapy horses will be released this Fall. It includes more stories about Mercury and Sirius and the other Maremma sheepdogs.

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