Founder Terry Holmes-Stecyk (with Dolly) turned a childhood passion into a successful career with Tender Little Hearts.

Even the most subdued mood or lonely heart in a senior center can be transformed from somber to spirited in a matter of minutes. Once Dolly, Mazy and Boone make their entrances, the seniors’ faces light up and the fun begins. 

The trio are mini animals; two mini horses and a mini donkey, to be exact. They are part of Tender Little Hearts, a nonprofit organization helmed by Terry Holmes-Stecyk that focuses on therapy work with the animals.

“I started it as a reading program. People do [therapy] with dogs, but no one was doing it with horses,” Holmes-Stecyk said. “Because the animals engage with people, they’re excellent for therapy, whether it’s with psychologists, trauma victims, children who have suffered abuse – they’re just a healing animal.”

The program started in March 2019, but Holmes-Stecyk has been involved in this type of therapy work for the past five years. 

“As I began to retire and work fewer hours, I found myself needing something to do, so I started volunteering with a group called Mobile Minis,” she said. From there, the reading program evolved, and Holmes-Stecyk decided to invest in her own horses. 

“I remember caring for my grandmother, and I just knew how lonely she was. When I would bring my dogs by or when she would visit, you could see how engaged she would be and I thought, ‘I want to do this’. It’s amazingly rewarding,” Holmes-Stecyk said. 

Holmes-Stecyk explained that equine therapy has various outlets – in Arizona, several organizations use horseback riding as a treatment type. Patients work with occupational therapists and use the movement of the body for healing. Holmes-Stecyk’s specialty is bringing her “minis” to care facilities, hospices, trauma centers, senior centers, schools and even libraries for people to visit with them. 

“It’s just amazing – with children and seniors – sometimes I’ll see them with their heads up against the horse’s head, and they’re not saying a word to the animal. The energy is just passing back and forth between them,” she said.

She said that the horses are a great distraction to help with boredom for those who are unable to leave their facilities.

“There are so many different things they can do, even just with physical touch. They’re just soothing,” Holmes-Stecyk said. 

When Maserati (or Mazy, for short) and Dolly – both of whom were show horses at one point – and Boone the donkey head out to visit human friends, they ride in style in Holmes-Stecyk’s cargo van. They’re bathed and dressed in special shoes and therapy vests and usually hang out for an hour or so before heading back to the ranch. 

“Dolly will sometimes dress in a tutu. The bright colors help to stimulate seniors – as soon as we show up, I don’t exist anymore, and all the attention goes to the minis,” Holmes-Stecyk said. She brings brushes and bows and sometimes animal-safe body paint so that both kids and adults can play “dress up.” 

“I don’t think that there’s any age that doesn’t want to be with them,” she said. 

On most of the visits, the minis will travel to different facilities. However, Holmes-Stecyk has had guests come to the ranch or more recently, due to the pandemic, participate in Zoom reading sessions. 

“I knew that we had to do something. As of March 13, it was like, boom, everything was cut off. As summer was going on,

I kept hearing from my mom friends, ‘what are we going to do with the kids?’” Holmes-Stecyk said. 

She wanted to create something that would appeal to children, so she reached out to a friend’s husband, who took some video footage of the minis and created a 10-minute video so that kids could socially distance and read aloud to the animals. 

“We have a viewer that often comes to watch the animals and hear the bird sounds – she’s in Dubai,” Holmes-Stecyk said. “Being able to hear the sounds and see the horses is great because she’s in a big city where they don’t have that.”

In the future, Tender Little Hearts is hoping to introduce a read-along with the minis.

“Hearing the words are so important for the younger readers,” Holmes-Stecyk said. “Also, it could be a tool for English as a second language, or English speakers learning Spanish. I’m excited about it.” 

Holmes-Stecyk is also looking to add more minis to her family – especially a donkey friend for Boone, who she says is the “star of the reading program.” She would like to continue the reading sessions and hopes to start incorporating more school visits soon.