Debbie Hillery rode horses growing up in Minnesota – carefree summer rides through the prairie on a palomino named Sundance.
Now the horses come to her – specifically, a 30-inch tall, 250-pound miniature horse named Lilly.
On a Monday morning in August, Lilly and her owner, Brook Mortensen, arrived at Hillery’s MoonValley home in north Phoenix. They are a volunteer pet team for Hospice of the Valley, which is caring for Hillery.
After nibbling a little Bermuda grass in the front yard, Lilly sauntered into the family room, enticed by apple treats. Over the next hour, Hillery and her family members enjoyed petting and grooming Lilly, placing pink and white flower clips in her mane as they chatted with Mortensen.
The pet therapy visit was arranged by Hillery’s hospice home care team members after they heard how much she likes horses.
“It’s just so fun!” Hillery exclaimed, brushing Lilly’s white mane. Lilly responded with a soulful look and pawed the floor with her hoof (a signal for “more apples, please”).
Hillery, 59, was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. She’s had chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and has opted now for hospice and palliative care. Married and the mother of two grown daughters, Hillery had a career in sales and is a former cheerleader for the Minnesota Vikings.
A decade ago she served as a Hospice of the Valley volunteer.
“There’s something about horses that seems to soothe her,” said Margi Cook, Hillery’s sister. “In the last couple of months, she’s been talking about horses and enjoys being with them.”
Hospice of the Valley has about 200 pet therapy teams – mainly dogs and their “people” – who visit patients and families at their homes or wherever they reside. The visits perk up patients’ days and evoke pleasant memories of pets they have had in the past.
Like Hillery, Mortensen grew up with horses, but didn’t have much contact with them as an adult until three years ago. That is when her husband, who owns a pool company, brought home a video of a client’s miniature horses. “I said, oh, I have to have one!” she said. “But I knew miniature horses can’t be glorified pets – they have to have a job.”
Mortensen bought not just one but four miniature horses from a farm in Minnesota, including Lilly, a rescue horse purchased at auction.
Now the ponies’ day job is entertaining children at birthday parties and special events – Story Book Ponies, which can found on Facebook under that name or at storybook-ponies.com – based in the Northwest Valley.
Last spring, Mortensen started searching the internet for a charitable activity she could do with the ponies. She came across Hospice of the Valley’s website and learned about the Pet Connections program. Within a month, Lilly became a registered pet therapy animal and Mortensen completed the requisite volunteer training.
“I can empathize with these patients,” said Mortensen, a breast cancer survivor. “I’ve been there. I’ve been bald. I haven’t felt well. That was my main motivation. These horses bring me so much joy. I want to bring joy to someone else.”
To view more photos of Lilly’s visit on Facebook, click here.
Reporting: Beverly Medlyn, communications director at Hospice of the Valley, a not-for-profit organization that provides end-of-life care.