"Sue Miller knew no horse could replace the beloved Petie the Pony.
But Miller, co-owner of Victory Gallop in Bath and one of Petie’s three handlers, knew she needed to find a new pony to bring therapeutic healing and joy to children at local hospitals"
For 20 years, Petie the Pony visited patients at Akron Children’s Hospital weekly. For about eight years, he also visited weekly at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland...
Petie gained national attention as the first horse to be allowed access to visit patients in a hospital in the United States.
He also drew a fan base of adoring patients, families and staffers in and outside the hospitals. When Petie developed cancer and had to be euthanized in September, more than 150 people came to a memorial service and open house at Victory Gallop.
At the time of his death, Miller told me: “I think Petie would be really disappointed in all of us if we didn’t carry on his legacy. We will definitely bounce back because that’s what we do and Petie knew what he did was special. We have to carry that on.”
Enter Willie Nelson.
“I was on the internet and was Googling ponies,” Miller recalled. “My first reaction was just the name, Willie Nelson. I thought it was cute.
“The song — On the Road Again — it was playing and as it was playing, his little ears started showing up and then this little guy starts coming. He was pulling a wagon.
“He was hooked up to a harness and the cart. The music is going and he’s just trotting up this country road and I just thought it was adorable.”
Miller called his owner in Colorado, who had bought the 7-year-old pony for his grandkids to ride in the summers. Before that, he had been with an Amish family.
She saw a photo of him with two Amish kids riding him as he pulled a cart with a third kid inside. “We figured if he could tolerate all of that, probably what we were going to do was going to work.”
Pony in training
Miller, her Victory Gallop co-director Kim Gustely and Petie’s main handler, Toril Simon, gave Willie time to chill at the farm once he arrived in October. They wanted him to get used to the other horses and dogs that live there. Slowly, they started training him, including taking him into Miller’s house on the property and banging pots and cabinets in the kitchen to make sure he wouldn’t get spooked. They also took him on field trips, including to pet stores, a nursing home and one quick trip to the hospital, where he rode the elevator.
On a recent day, I watched as handlers tried a training session for the first time in two months.
They took him into the farm’s activities room, where Simon led him around a table while Miller, carrying a bucket in case he needed to go to the bathroom, also banged chairs around him and bumped into him.
“We want this to be no big deal. He’s going to sometimes be in a room that’s confined,” Miller said.
Nothing fazed Willie. Simon reclined on a bench to mimic being in a hospital bed. Willie stayed near her, letting her stroke his head.
“Sometimes the kids can’t really move a lot; they may have IVs or be sore,” Miller said. “We want him to be like, ‘This is OK, I can hang here.’ ”
When they were in the farm’s offices, Miller explained that by Willie turning his head to sniff a dog bed next to a chair with Simon in it, he showed he wasn’t completely focused on her.
“Kids are going to come at him fast. They’re going to poke. I don’t want him to be like ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ” Miller said.
They also took him into Miller’s kitchen, walking him around the island, banging doors, turning on faucets. This time, he stayed focused.
‘There’s a pony’
On another training day, Willie headed to the Pets Pajamas in the Montrose area of Bath. As soon as he walked in, he was met by 7-year-old Elise Helms, who was visiting the pet store with her mom, Leslie.
Willie didn’t mind the cramped store quarters, or Elise or another toddler petting him while dogs were barking nearby and a blow-dryer from the grooming area was going.
His trainers were happy with his progress. The last time he visited the store, he didn’t want to go in the front door and seemed more anxious to leave.
As he was preparing to leave, Mary Rood and her adult daughter, Tess, came in. Tess had told her mom, “There’s a pony in there” as they approached the store.
“Is he being trained to take Petie’s place?” Mary Rood asked Miller.
“He is! He’s hopefully going to be the next Petie,” Miller replied.
But not Petie
“Kim and I feel he definitely has the potential,” Miller said. “I try really hard not to compare him. He’s not going to be Petie. He’s going to have his own personality. What is important to Kim and I and Toril as his handler is his safety.”
They don’t want Willie Nelson to panic when he’s in a hospital room, which could cause injury to him or a patient if his foot hits a machine.
At the end of the visit to Pets Pajamas, Miller said Willie Nelson is ready.
“I have high hopes,” she said. “He has a tough role to fulfill, but we’re hopeful.”
Patients and staff at the hospital can’t wait to meet Willie, said Vicki Parisi, director of volunteer and visitor services at Akron Children’s.
“Petie left such an impression here for so many years,” Parisi said. “There was such a sadness. We’ll never forget Petie.”
Parisi, who hasn’t met Willie yet, thinks he will come in and bring joy and smiles, just like Petie.
Miller hopes to have Willie make his first short visit to the hospital in late April — and we’ll be there to follow along. If it goes well, they will move to more regular visits. They hope to add visits to Rainbow in the summer.
By Akron Beacon Journal consumer columnist and medical reporter Betty Lin-Fisher