At Minis and Friends, the goal is simple – share the love and spirit of miniature horses with those who need specialized, tender care. Achieving that goal, however, is far from simple. In order to light up the lives of children with disabilities, youth in transition and elderly adults, the “minis” must be specially trained to work indoors and out, as well as to work around wheelchairs, walkers, and medical IV’s. The minis must be cared for daily with hands-on touching and exercising, and their volunteer mini-handlers must be specially trained to guide interactions between the horses and those whose spirits they lift. Holding it all together is Gil Iwanski, resident “horse whisperer” for Minis and Friends. Gil, 69, takes on the education and observation of each trained miniature horse ambassador at each visit, and behind his watchful eye and years of dedication, Minis and Friends has not only touched more than 10,000 lives itself but amazingly spawned twelve new sister organizations to touch lives across the United States and Canada.
“I can truly say that Minis and Friends would never have gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been for Gil,” says Sally Iwanski, Gil’s wife and co-founder of the organization. “Minis and Friends has changed both our lives – over and over and over again.” The minis pay visits to about a thousand children each year, from the general population of Dell Children’s Medical Center and special events for the Blood and Cancer / HEMOC clinic at Dell Children’s to shelter facilities like Helping Hand Home for Children and The Settlement Home for Children. This year Minis and Friends has increased visits, focusing on seniors, adults in rehab and those with memory disorders. For many of these patients, the miniature horses bring back magical moments of times gone by. Longtime volunteer Lisa Cowger remembers her experience bringing the minis to Dell Children’s. “The looks on their faces when they see the tiny horses are PRICELESS! The ones who weren’t wheelchair-bound eagerly came to the pavilion and made a bee line to the horses. Volunteering with Minis and Friends really puts things in perspective.”
The little horses with big hearts also share their love with hundreds of special needs adults each year, and make appearances at events like the Buddy Walk for Down’s Syndrome, NAMI Walks and the Center for Child Protection Family Day. “The types of folks we see, they don’t have everything,” Sally says. “When you make them smile, or you see a hand stretch out, or you see a kid laugh, it’s like – wow, we can’t stop this, we’ve got to keep going!” Sally and Gil’s Mini Boot Camp ensures the outreach will keep going, teaching mini owners from around the country how to work with their minis in their respective communities and how to start up and maintain their own nonprofits. Gil teaches each of these mini owners a unique curriculum of what are called Equine Guided Interactions (EGI), ensuring that the Austin-born outreach grows in communities from Dallas and San Marcos to Soldotna, Alaska and Calgary, Alberta. The most recent Mini Boot Camp spread this special program to communities in Ohio, New York, Rhode Island and Blanco County, TX – all made possible by Gil’s priceless dedication. “Minis and Friends would be in very sad shape if Gil was not there to help lighten our day,” says Sally. “We depend on him greatly!”