By Gaye Bunderson
Laurie Bell always had a heart for horses. Even though she was raised in the Bench area of Boise and not on a farm, she wanted to own a horse and learn to ride it. The desire started early in her life. “As soon as I was saying Mommy and Daddy, I was saying ‘horse’,” Laurie said.
She was able to take riding lessons and once, around the age of 7 or 8, she and a friend got permission to ride horses to school and tie them up at a bike rack before going into class. She eventually got a Welsh pony and a quarter horse when she was 36. As a schoolteacher at the time, she’d hold horse camps and give riding lessons in the summer to her students.
Almost 25 years later, she still owns the quarter horse and has given him some friends: 4 mini horses, 1 mini donkey, and 2 little goats. Now she has horses that are more for cuddling than for riding. She no longer lives on the Bench. She and her husband own Mini Joys Ranch, located in the country on North McFarland Creek Road in the foothills near Hidden Springs in Boise. Mini Joys Ranch is more than just a pastime for Laurie. She uses her mini horses to bring comfort to children with special needs, and even sometimes to elderly people.
She got her first mini 11 years ago, inspired by an Animal Planet program that showed mini horses visiting children with cancer. After she dried her tears, she said, she just knew she had to do something like that. She started doing research, but it wasn’t about how horses can be used to comfort humans. “I already knew how horses connect with people,” she said.
She needed to study business basics — to put on her business brain. She needed to learn how to take horses into schools. And anyone who thinks she’s joking about that needs to know about her primary passion.
“We do a lot of things in schools with special needs children,” she said. The “we” stands for her and her volunteers, and the word “wee” could stand for the mini horses that she loads in a tiny trailer and takes into classrooms (and sometimes nursing homes) in the Treasure Valley.
That’s when the horses go to the people; but more regularly, the people come to the horses. Mini Joys Ranch is a beautiful setting for visitors. Laurie and her husband, who teaches at Boise State, have created a space with tables, chairs, and a treehouse. There’s a stream and plenty of trees. The site is nature at its finest, with spottings of an occasional deer, sightings of fowls, and pleasant encounters with squirrels.
Children come to the ranch to bond with, pet, and enjoy the mini horses, such as 12-year-old Spunky or 4-year-old Wrangler. In the picnic area, they can enjoy refreshments or their owned bagged or boxed lunches and hear stories written by Laurie and mostly woven around equines. Some of the books include:
• “Wonderfully Made: The Story of Hope” — “Life is really special, and all kids are different,” Laurie said. The main lesson of the book is: “Find your strength and make the world better.”
• “Big Bully Buddy: Finding Friendship” — This book is about bullying and conveys the idea that it is the bully who has the problem, not the person who is the bully’s target. The book tells children, “There’s nothing bad about you — THEY have challenges.” Laurie said that when she worked as a teacher in the public school system, she realized that a very high percentage of bullies acted the way they did because they felt insecure. The book encourages children to try and understand the bully and where he or she is coming from, in hopes of finding a path to friendship.
• “Kids & Pets: Much to Give, Much to Gain” — Laurie is a firm believer in the value that pets bring to human lives, and the book takes a special look at children and their animals.
The mini horses are vital to everything Laurie does, and she still has a teacher’s heart. For instance, she and some of her volunteers gave a program at Lake Hazel Elementary around the topic, “You Can Be a Hero.” Laurie asked the kids what a superhero is, and the kids replied, “They save or rescue somebody.” Laurie then led them to talk about something they could do to save, rescue, or help somebody — and then to do it. Ideas included helping out a neighbor in need. One of the really fun things was that the mini horses all wore superhero capes to the school. At the end of the program, Laurie told the teacher and class, “E-mail me about what you do to be an everyday hero. I want to tell the horses!”
There are 45 group programs from March to early December revolving around the mini horses. Most of them take place at the ranch. “Some programs are for joy and hope,” Laurie said, “but the majority have a teaching component.”
There are 3 primary categories of children Laurie and her volunteers work with:
• special education youngsters
• children referred to them by counselors
• children with behavioral challenges
And in keeping with Laurie’s original inspiration for owning mini horses, they also sometimes work with kids undergoing medical care, and have events for families with a sick child.
They also do some things with mainstream kids and hold two open houses a year for people who just want to bring their children out to see the horses. Laurie suggested people follow Mini Joys on Facebook to see the public events.
Laurie trains volunteers in February, and there are 50 active volunteers working with Mini Joys at any given time. “We service hundreds of people a year, all with a volunteer team,” she said.
The mini horses are a likable lot and have been hand-picked to work well with people. “I pick out calm babies,” Laurie said. She then trains them to be steady-and-ready for people of all ages to see and enjoy.
Ninety-eight percent of the programs Mini Joys offers are for schools and non-profits. Mini Joys is a non-profit also, flourishing through donations from people who believe in the work Laurie, her volunteer team, and her animal menagerie are doing.
For more information, go to www.minijoys.org or visit Mini Joys on Facebook.