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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses were in Surfside, Florida, recently where therapy horses Sweetheart and Magic comforted families and first responders involved in the aftermath of the June Champlain Towers South collapse.

The horses and their trainers, Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea, left for south Florida on July 16 after they had been contacted by several families with loved ones involved in the building’s collapse. The couple and their mini horses had been conducting summer outdoor reading programs for Ocala/Marion County Chamber and Economic Partnership and sheduled their trip between the two weekly Thursday reading sessions.

“We had to fit it in somehow,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. “It was tight, but we really wanted to be there for those families and the emergency personnel involved.” The pair and their horses returned to north Florida the night of Wednesday, July 21, in time to do the reading program in Ocala the day after.

Describing the situation in Surfside Debbie Garcia-Bengochea explained, “The whole scene is a crime scene. Emergency personnel have come in from other places to help with the work and trucks are in and out of the area all the time removing debris to other locations.”

When the horses were not meeting with people, they had a private place to stay so they could have some quiet time. “The people were great. The beach is a place where they normally don’t allow animals, but they allowed our horses to run on the beach at Surfside to help them get some exercise,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “Although parking is at a premium in that area, people made sure to leave room for our van.”

While Garcia-Bengochea didn’t know the exact number of people or families they met with, she said it was a lot. “We met with a lot of first responders more so than the impacted families.”

The couple went to Surside with bags of stuffed horses for the children. As it turned out, first responders’ families were not on the scene, and they sent the stuffed horses home to the families, making sure they provided for each child in the family. Jorge Garcia-Bengochea and Magic also left a stuffed horses at the Memorial Wall in tribute.

After their poignant visit, horses Magic and Sweetheart are taking a few days off. “They are running around and playing with the other horses,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

As for the other horses, they will continue visiting assisted living outdoor programs, hospice programs in the courtyard and outdoor reading programs in outlying libraries in Live Oak and Perry. “

“We have been at this for more than 22 years now,” she said. “We do all we can to help promote reading, kindness and other good qualities.”

One of the ways the organization earns money to continue their program is through the sale of books they have written about the miniature horses. They use the books during the reading programs and bring along the horse the story is written about to make the stories even more exciting for the children.

The latest book, “Mini Horse, Mighty Hope: How a Herd of Miniature Horses Provides Comfort and Healing” is available nationally through Amazon for preorder now, but will officially be released on Oct. 19. And in 2022, a documentary film about Magic is slated to premiere.

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Email cwalker@

alachuatoday.com