Miniature horse brightens lives

Pearl, who is no higher than 20 inches, visits patients and others who need a little cheer.

By Kim Devore / The Malibu Times

The license plate on the sporty Honda Element reads TNY HRS. If you happen to pass the compact crossover on Pacific Coast Highway and notice a tiny horse riding in the backseat, don’t be alarmed. It’s just Pearl, out to spread smiles and brighten lives.

Pearl is a two-and-a-half year-old miniature horse that measures just 29 inches high and weighs 130 pounds. Together with her companion and owner, Victoria Nodiff-Netanel, she’s part of one of the city’s best-loved pet therapy teams.

Nodiff-Netanel, who has lived near Saddle Peak Lodge for the better part of 20 years, is an experienced horsewoman. When she retired from dressage, she decided to give Pearl a home and try something new.

“I have always felt very blessed in my own life and always wanted to volunteer,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do but I knew I loved animals.”

Nodiff-Netanel and Pearl passed a pet therapy certification program and began making weekly visits to the Veterans Health Administration Hospital in Westwood.

Even though Pearl gets a complete bath and comes with festive bows in her mane, she had to win over the skeptics.

“At first the doctors and nurses were thinking, ‘What is livestock doing in the hospital?’” Nodiff-Netanel said. “But now they love her. She’s a fixture.”

Every Tuesday Pearl navigates wheelchairs and walkers, going from room to room where she nuzzles up for hugs, gives high fives, smiles, shakes her head yes and no, and even takes a bow. For patients, the experience is transporting. Her mission takes her everywhere from oncology units to psychiatric lockdown and physical rehab where she touches everyone she meets.

“People are in very bad shape, they’ve had limbs removed, they’re quadriplegics, they’ve been to Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iraq. They are depressed and tired of the whole hospital environment,” Nodiff-Netanel said. “Pearl comes in and all of a sudden there’s interaction and conversation. People tell me over and over again how happy they are to see Pearl.”

That was especially true for Jerry Amato. When he was moved to the hospice with just weeks to live, Nodiff-Netanel got the call. His final wish was to see Pearl. He died with a smile on his face.

“I get goose bumps when I think about it,” Nodiff-Netanel said. “It means so much to me that she meant so much to him.”

While Pearl primarily works at the Veterans hospital she’s also been a big hit among children with disabilities and the elderly in assisted living.

“People are so focused on their own situation,” Nodiff-Netanel said. “Then they see this little horse and it takes them outside themselves. It gives them a little time to forget their pain and troubles.”

Last week Pearl made her journey in the pouring rain to spread some holiday cheer. “The holidays are the hardest time for people in the hospital,” Nodiff-Netanel said. “So I dressed her in a little Santa outfit and it was just so wonderful to see how happy she made people feel.”

To recognize Pearl, the Veterans Health Administration recently honored her with an awards ceremony, a fancy certificate and a special medal. She even has her very own parking space outside the hospital door.

No one can speak for Pearl, but Nodiff-Netanel said she gets as much as she gives. “I feel so lucky to be doing this, to lift people’s spirits just by bringing your pet around,” she said. “I never understood how rewarding volunteering could be. Now I get it. It’s such a small thing, but it can make a big difference to people around you.”

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