Dorothy Pritchard, 92, gives Trusty, a miniature therapy horse, a carrot on a recent visit to Jamie’s Place, the retirement home in Winthrop, Washington.
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Dorothy Pritchard, 92, gives Trusty, a miniature therapy horse, a carrot on a recent visit to Jamie’s Place, the retirement home in Winthrop, Washington.
Credit: Ashley Ahearn for KUOW

Meet Trusty, the smallest and most highly trained therapy horse in America

When Heidi Weston had a serious accident with her horse, she thought she’d never have horses in her life again… until she met Trusty the miniature horse.

The first time Trusty, a miniature horse, went to a memory care facility, he went over to a woman with dementia.

Trusty’s owner, Heidi Weston, watched as the woman ran her hands over Trusty’s face, and then held them to her nose to smell.

The woman burst into tears.

“Oh no, what’s wrong?” Weston said. But they were tears of joy.

“Happy, happy, happy,” the woman said.

The caretakers at the facility told Weston that the woman had become non-verbal, but that she’d had horses in her younger life, and the smell of Trusty must have unlocked those memories.

Heidi Weston with her miniature therapy horse, Trusty.
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Heidi Weston with her miniature therapy horse, Trusty.
Credit: Ashley Ahearn for KUOW

Trusty lives in Mazama, in north-central Washington state, and he is the most highly-trained therapy horse in the country.

Certified by Pet Partners of Bellevue, Trusty has completed a rigorous training program that has prepared him for the most stressful situations any species of therapy animal might face.

“He can go to a psychiatric hospital. He can go to a battle ground. Anywhere there’s a lot of chaos, heavy stress, heavy noise,” Weston said earlier this month, as she led Trusty out of a trailer that looked better suited to transport Great Danes.

They had arrived at Jamie’s Place, a retirement home and assisted living facility in Winthrop, Washington.

Trusty’s three-inch-wide hooves made a hollow clack-clack sound on the linoleum floors as he walked in. As he rounded the corner to the kitchen, several wrinkled faces lit up.

Dorothy Pritchard, 92, welcomed Trusty’s fuzzy brown head into her lap at the kitchen table and gently held a carrot out to his wiggling lips.

“You’re a sweet baby,” she said, running her hands through his mane and along his nose.

Dorothy didn’t remember that Trusty has visited her before.

Trusty has also worked with children with disabilities. He has visited Camp Korey, for children with serious medical conditions and disabilities north of Seattle, where Weston said a young autistic boy fell in love with him.

The boy ran up to Trusty and threw his arms around him, hugging him again and again.

“He spent the whole time looking at his face and looking at his eyes,” Weston said. “He was putting his fingers in Trusty’s ears, up his nose, tracing his feet. Trusty just stood there calmly.”

Weston grew up around horses.

As a kid she spent summers at her uncle’s dairy farm, riding every day. Later, when she lived in Kirkland, she bought a gaited horse named Bombay.

Bombay was a dream come true, but at age 3, he developed strained fetlocks and was placed on stall rest for a year.

And then, tragedy: Weston was handwalking the horse as part of his rehabilitation, when her friend riding alongside her set off in a different direction. Bombay got spooked.

Weston doesn’t remember what happened next. When she regained consciousness she was on the ground, and her face was bleeding profusely. Her friend was hunched over her, screaming.

Lois Chavey, 86, greets Trusty at Jamie’s Place, a retirement home in Winthrop, in eastern Washington.
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Lois Chavey, 86, greets Trusty at Jamie’s Place, a retirement home in Winthrop, in eastern Washington.
Credit: Ashley Ahearn for KUOW

Weston was rushed to the hospital. Bombay had kicked her in such a way that her nose was ripped off her face and her chin and orbital eye socket were fractured. Weston’s bicep was also torn.

After multiple plastic surgeries and months of sleeping in a chair with debilitating vertigo, Weston was finally well enough to visit Bombay. She said she still loved the horse and knew the accident wasn’t his fault.

As she got out of the car with her cane and made her way over to the pasture where Bombay was enclosed with eight other horses, she couldn’t help but notice a miniature paint horse standing off by himself.

“He’s the low man in the herd,” said the woman who was watching Bombay. “The rest of them pick on him.”

The woman turned to Weston and said, “Do you want to take him home?”

Weston laughed. “‘What am I going to do with him? He’s useless,’” she said. “I’m used to horses that have a job.”

But the miniature horse melted her heart, and soon showed her what his job would be.

Weston’s mother lived in an assisted living facility in downtown Kirkland at the time and asked Weston to bring him for a visit.

“My mom opens the door and says, ‘Bring him in! Everybody wants to see him!’” Weston said. And then, Weston said, a funny thing happened.

“He went from person to person and just said hello,” she said.“I’ll never forget thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is something he can do.’”

On a sunny morning at Jamie’s Place in Winthrop, Trusty moved around the table, greeting the other residents and tilting his head sideways, adorably, as he reached politely for carrots.

Heidi Weston and her horse Trusty. Heidi Weston of Mazama is the owner and caretaker of the most highly-trained therapy horse in the country. Certified by Pet Partners of Bellevue, Trusty has completed a rigorous training program that has prepared him for the most stressful situations any species of therapy animal might face.
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Heidi Weston and her horse Trusty. Heidi Weston of Mazama is the owner and caretaker of the most highly-trained therapy horse in the country. Certified by Pet Partners of Bellevue, Trusty has completed a rigorous training program that has prepared him for the most stressful situations any species of therapy animal might face.
Credit: Ashley Ahearn for KUOW

After 15 minutes or so, he pawed the linoleum with his tiny hooves, a sign to Weston that he needed to go outside for a bathroom break.

“He’s never had an accident indoors,” Weston said proudly, as she led him to a green patch of grass beside the front door.

At 23 years old, Trusty may have another decade of therapy work left in him. Miniature horses can live to more than 45 years old.

Weston has written Trusty into her will, just in case he outlives her. “My lawyer thought I was crazy. ‘You really want to modify your will to put your animal in it?’” Weston said laughing.

“But my niece knows she’s on the hook, and she’s willing to do therapy work with him as long as he wants to do it.”