Since she was a child, Nicole Stilson, DVM of Linden has loved horses and did anything she could to be around them. It was that passion and love of horses that inspired the founding of Carousel of Hope Miniature Horse Therapy in May 2022. The organization’s purpose is to provide mobile equine-assisted therapy and activities to children and adults of all ages and abilities.
The nonprofit operation offers indoor visits with its two miniature horses to residents of senior living and memory care facilities, rehabilitation and veteran centers, grief therapy groups, hospitals, schools and private homes.
Stilson had always dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and after obtaining her DVM degree at Purdue University, that dream came true for the Fenton native. She spent 21 years in the veterinary profession as a small animal vet at the Swartz Creek Animal Hospital and Companion Animal Hospital in Linden. “I grew up in Fenton and it was super exciting to come back to my hometown!” Stilson exclaimed.
Once she married and had children, Stilson’s life became very busy and after retiring from the veterinary profession, she missed the horse world. During this time, she was leading a women’s bible study at her church. “We were studying about finding our passion,” she remembers, “and our purpose and what gifts we had to share with others.” Then, she heard a quote by author Ann VosKamp that stopped her in her tracks and brought her to tears: “You were made for the place where your real passion meets compassion, because there lies your real purpose.”
“God kept dropping puzzle pieces in front of me. He asked me to have the courage to put them together and that is what happened.”
Nicole Stilson, DVM
After hearing that, she wrote down her own passions – horses, therapy, prayer. Although she had never worked with mini horses, she had recently read an article about how they were used in therapy. “That’s it! That’s what I want to do!” she exclaimed. She began researching it and stumbled across a website for Seven Oaks Farm in Ohio. The organization offered a training and certification program for people wanting to start an equine therapy organization and how to get it up and running. “I was in shock,” she adds. “It was all right there.”
With guidance from Seven Oaks, Stilson was able to start Carousel of Hope. In July 2022, she purchased two miniature horses from Morning Star Miniature Horses in Palm Beach, FL. “They were bred and raised by reputable breeders,” she reports. The two minis, Kory and Selena, soon became beloved members of the Stilson family and the faces of Carousel of Hope. Kory is “all boy” and Selena is “all girl” Stilson describes. “Kory is very silly and wants to play rough, while Selena is quite sweet but sassy and loves the older people. Kory loves the kids.”
According to Stilson, the pieces in the puzzle of her new undertaking continued to fall into place. “There were so many pieces,” she shares. “God kept dropping puzzle pieces in front of me. He asked me to have the courage to put them together and that is what happened.”
The last piece of the puzzle? “Where in the world will I keep the horses?” Stilson says. Once again involved in the world of horses, Stilson had attended a dinner where she struck up a conversation with John and Gail Strayer, owners of Tanglewood Assisted Living & Memory Care in Fenton at the time. Stilson told the couple about the miniature horses at Carousel of Hope and her need for a place to board them. She soon received a call from the Strayers, who said they were interested in housing the minis in the barn on their 20-acre property, and an agreement was soon reached. “It was meant to be!” Stilson exclaims.
Tanglewood was the perfect place to train Kory and Selena to become therapy horses. They learned to walk on wheelchair ramps and also were able to connect with Tanglewood residents. One of the residents, Roger, fell in love with the minis. “He was a veteran,” Stilson shares. “He used to be a farrier and he loved the horses. His eyes lit up and filled with tears when he saw them. This is when I knew I was doing what I was meant to do.”
Stilson has faced a few bumps in the road, having faced some medical issues and moving from a home her family lived in for 18 years to their Linden home where they now reside. The miniatures were moved from Tanglewood and are now housed in the barn on Stilson’s property. They still continue monthly visits to Tanglewood. “Tanglewood was our first therapy experience,” Stilson says.
Carousel of Hope Miniature Horse Therapy has visited other senior care facilities including Symphony in Linden and visited St. John School in Fenton last Christmas. Stilson also took the horses to Powers Catholic High School when she was a speaker for Career Day. “They got to ride in the elevator,” Stilson shares, adding that it was good training for them. “Training can be challenging. Horses see, hear and think differently than humans do.”
Stilson is looking forward to the growth of Carousel of Hope in the year ahead. The organization will be partnering with a social club in Genesee County for adults with intellectual and/or mental disabilities. They also plan to expand visits to other places.
Currently, Carousel of Hope is mostly funded by the Stilsons. They have held some fundraisers in the past and can accept personal donations. There are also opportunities for volunteers who are interested in working with the horses.
Stilson’s work with the miniature horses has been very rewarding. “I love being in this chapter of my life. It is joy and fulfillment beyond what I imagined. Seeing people’s smiles and hearing their laughter – it’s always joy-filled.”