The miniature horses of Gentle Carousel in Alachua have helped more than 18,000 children and adults. Now, the therapy animals are taking on one of their toughest tasks yet: helping the children affected by the tragedy in Newtown.
George Garcia-Bengochea, the founder of the nonprofit group, said he couldn't say no when Newtown community members called him last week and asked him to help the families touched by the school shooting that devastated a nation.
"It's just one of those things. You can't say no," he said.
Volunteers such as Jennifer Anfinsen work with the group's 30 miniature horses, taking them to hospitals, schools, nursing homes and even libraries.
"They can touch [the horses'] hair. Touch her face. Little kids like to point out a body part and point out the ears or the nose of the hair," she said.
"It gets your mind off of your worries, and it allows you to focus somewhere else."
The trip to Newtown will be the organization's farthest trip yet. Three mini horses and six volunteers will head north to provide comfort and support.
"I was very excited to be able to give back, and to be able, in the time of grief, to be able to bring them a little bit of happiness," volunteer Chesleigh Slayton said.
It takes about two years to train the mini horses, but organizers say being able to help ease the pain in Newtown makes it all worth it.
The group plans to leave this weekend and stay for about a week -- where they hope they can replace nightmares with dreams.
"We hope we can bring some fond memories and happiness for that community in Newtown, and allow the children and families to dream of minis and not monsters," Garcia-Bengochea said.