Dominique’s Smiles Spreads Hope and Sunshine
By CH Staff
There’s nothing miniature about the achievements that mini-therapy horse Domique’s owner Sandy Smith has successfully attained in her mission to spread hope and sunshine to those most in need.
Within a 100-mile radius of her home in South Central PA, Smith offers free of charge visits to a wide variety of facilities and events. Due to the pandemic of Covid-19, the necessary hold on access to patients and patrons of hospitals, nursing homes and schools has not dampened Smith’s ardor to sustain others with Dominique’s presence. Smith is happy to travel further afield with her charge too.
From firehouses to voting lines to Covid-19 vaccination sites, the past year has been busier than ever. Local news networks have picked up on the joy that the wee beastie brings to those in need of a smile, and the following of this human-horse duo increases daily.
Anyone that has met Sandy Smith will probably agree that she is a force of nature. When you meet this lifelong horsewoman her bubbly disposition and open heart is immediately apparent. There is almost ‘no saying no,’ to Smith, whose passion to get the job done and sense of humor inspire those with even the most stoic of personalities, to crinkle their eyes and their mouths to break into a grin.
Tooting about the wider neighborhood requires unavoidable expenses such as gas money, parking, accommodation for Smith and stabling for Dominique if overnight stays are needed, and so necessarily a donation or small appearance fee to cover expenses is requested. As a registered 501(c) 3 charity, all donations are fully tax- deductible.
So what possessed this sprightly veteran equestrian to train the mini-therapy horse and take on the task of spreading cheer to others you might ask? A selfless task that Smith’s humility does not allow her to address when questioned closely. Some prying is needed!
The Merry Band at The Catskill Horse [CH] staff sat down with Sandy Smith [SS] to find out more about Dominique’s Smiles. Here’s what Smith had to say:
CH: Why do you do what you do?
SS: Over time I have met children with cancer. I have had the privilege of being able to visit them when in hospital. Visiting a child with cancer who sometimes doesn’t have many tomorrows, is a bit different. They are not morbid or trying to be funny when they would ask me to bring a horse! Yes, dogs visit hospitals and are great. However, horses are magical perhaps because of the unexpected. The unexpected can have healing powers as well. If a horse can visit me in a hospital, perhaps I can get well! That belief!
I have made the promise that I was unable to bring one to them but would get and train a horse to visit children in hospitals in the future. A few years ago I found myself making that promise again. It was the last time I would see that child. No more promises! I placed thesecurity sticker hospitals require visitors to wear, on the visor of my truck. Every time the sun got in my way and I pulled the visor down, I was reminded of how blessed I was to see the sun and that promise. I saved money because I knew doing this wouldn’t be cheap.
The summer of 2019, I found the type of mini horse I was looking for. He was a 33” tall, 5 year old Appaloosa I named Dominique, a name for either a boy or girl so both could identify. I have trained and certified him as a therapy horse, and started the non-profit Dominique’s Smiles. A promise must be kept.
CH: Can you tell us about your equestrian background? How did you come to know horses? When did you learn to ride? Where did you grow up?
SS: I always loved and wanted a horse. My Mom liked horses and rode a bit was she was a teen. My grandfather took me to visit a friend of his who had Shetland ponies in a cute little barn. He taught me how to groom them. He also took me to a friend who raised bunnies and I got a bunny but not a pony.
When I was four, I took matters into my own hands. On a rainy day Mom taught me how to make sachets. She could hardly believe how making them kept me so busy all and how many I made. The next day she found out I had sold them all to neighbors for money to buy a pony. I colored pictures and sold them. Mom gave up taking me around to give the money back because no one would take it back. I advanced to selling all occasion and Christmas cards, salt and pepper shakers, decorations and products the good folks of Hoosick Falls, NY didn’t think they needed but bought. I finally was able to take riding lessons from my Mom’s friend and her son.They rode Western and talked me into English because the horse I had lessons on rode English and had an English saddle.
When I wasn’t writing horses stories and reading them to my captive classmate audiences, I was reading horse books and teaching myself to post, leads, cleaning stalls and still selling all those useless items folks looked forward to buying.
One day it was announced the horse I loved, Gallant Lady, could no longer stay there. A mare was due to foal and room was needed. Lady’s owner was married with children and lived in Burlington,VT. When she heard about me, her attorney husband drew up papers and I bought Lady for $1.00. I ‘m not sure who was happier, myself or everyone in town. I no longer was selling things, instead I was asking if they wanted riding lessons. Gallant Lady’s School of Horsemanship was born along with a weekly horse column in the local paper called As Scene From Lady’s Saddle. I was12 years old.
CH: How Did You Progress To A Career in Horses After That?
SS: My Mom took over a small horse show run by the local church where she was a Sunday school teacher and turned it into an A rated AHSA show held every Memorial Day. I did the publicity for the show and all my students rode in something. My Mom and I would ride together a bit.
As time went on I bought and sold horses, got a van that one of my riding student’s father drove and we went to more shows. I enjoyed showing in NY and VT but realized the power horses had with my students. The ribbons were good but they also learned if they could ride, they could do anything they set their heart to do.
One of my students lost her entire family in a car accident. She was unhurt physically but could not respond she was so traumatized. Lady and I got her back in the saddle. She began to get her life back. I have thought of her and her younger sister often through the years when I worked with veterans, started the Easter Seal riding program in York Co., PA and other such programs. I have been blessed to see my students who were unable to tie their shoes, learn to trot figure 8’s and then tie their shoes! Older folks who wanted to once more go on trail rides did with smiles. Even got some of my geriatric students foxhunting. I had very good horses!
CH: You have experience as a jockey too don’t you?
SS: Yes. I rode in three steeplechases as MD owner/trainer/jockey and went to the flat track. Racing was great fun and a wonderful way to get family photos in the winner’s circle.
CH: How about your immediate family Sandy. Do they share your horse passion?
SS: My husband was an attorney. Between trails and horse shows, we found time to get married. Life got even better with three great children, All three children ride and rode in shows as children. My youngest son is a licensed race horse trainer as well. Sadly I lost my best friend, soul mate, lover, husband and father of our children to cancer 5 days before Valentine’s Day 15 years ago. Our time together was packed with a lot of fun.
CH: What is your first thought when you wake up in the morning?
SS: How blessed I am is my first thought. Second, thinking how lucky I am to have birds come to my window most mornings. Third, I have three very supportive sponsors: Outback Survival Gear from Saratoga Springs, NY; The Mill Of Red Lion, PA and Horizon Structures from Atglen, PA. Through Outback,I have 8”cuddly little Dominique horses complete with therapy vests to give for free to each child we visit to remember their visit by! These little pieces of love for children to hold are now in big boxes stacked in my bedroom as a reminder of promises unmet. Knowing the joy they will bring does weigh heavy on my heart till it begins to happen! It will also get the boxes out of my room.
CH: Can you tell us more about these cuddly horses? They sound wonderful. How can people buy one or donate?
SS: On the Dominique’s website at: dominiquessmiles.com.
For a tax deductible donation of $60, 1 plush Dominique will be gifted and mailed out to the donor as a thank you and 1 plush Dominique will be given in the donor’s name with a note to a hospitalized child.
CH: What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to deal with during the Covid pandemic?
SS: During Dominique’s training we did private home visits, nursing homes with elevators and malls. Covid hit and everything shut down and just when people need Dominique’s Smiles the most I could not get in to bring them. I understand the severity of Covid but I knew the positive impact his visits would make for patients as well as nursing staff. I knew I could suit up and walk down the halls stopping at doors for adults and children to look out Not being able to this has been very hard!
CH: And what is the most common response from people when they meet Dominique?
“That is the cutest thing I have ever seen!”
“Can I pet him?”
“Can I take a picture?”
“What is his name?”
“You have made my day!”
All said with smiles that I can see even through their masks.
CH: What do you do to relax when you are not out with Dominique?
SS: Humm. That’s a hard one.
Ride, write, read and travel. This question is the hardest question because it means doing some quietly and not working which I often equate with relaxing. I also enjoy having a cup of fresh morning coffee on the deck overlooking the fields and in the evening having a glass of wine on the deck with the most beautiful sunsets.
If you would like to book Dominique for an event of any sort please reach out to Sandy Smith and get busy. You can reach her through her website and of course, donations are always gratefully received.