A miniature Pinto horse named Domi has a superpower — the ability to bring smiles to prison inmates.
The 32-inch-tall horse seems at ease in the bright, noisy environment of razor wire and steel. On Friday, she and handler Brian Hohstadt passed through security at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. When a sliding metal gate crashed shut behind them, the 12-year-old mare seemed unfazed. She and Hohstadt paused as another door slid open and then set off down a polished tile hallway, too slick for most horses. Domi, however, wears special leather shoes with rubber soles that give her traction. The pair headed to Housing Unit C on the west side of the prison.
Inside the unit, a dozen men crowded around the horse. Inmate Lance Wood stretched a muscular, tattooed arm toward Domi and scratched the horse behind its ears. A grin lit his face. After a few minutes, he reluctantly stepped aside so another man could have a turn.
Wood, in prison for murder, said he hadn’t seen an animal for a long time prior to Hohstadt bringing Domi to the unit. He said being around the horse softens his reality.
“It momentarily takes me away from this environment and the nuances of prison,” said Wood, who explained that inmates learn to hone their macho, tough-guy personas.
Hohstadt has become accustomed to watching Domi break through barriers. He sees men with the hardest of shells get emotional as they hug her neck or stroke her mane.
“It gives them a few minutes to get outside of their heads and away from the concrete and steel,” he said. “With animals, it’s unconditional love.”
The room’s warmth triggered a toothy yawn from Domi and amusement from the men. Hohstadt pleasantly fielded questions as he held Domi’s leash.
The affable Cove native said he doesn’t downplay the fact that these men landed in prison because they committed crimes. Still, he doesn’t want them to lose hope.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone has value,” Hohstadt said. “We all make mistakes and must pay for those mistakes. I want them to know I haven’t forgotten about them and that they have value.”
Back home in Cove, Hohstadt also has a gelding named Baxter. The two certified pet therapy horses visit not only four state prisons, including Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, but care facilities and hospitals. At Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Domi even has her own identification badge.
Hohstadt grew up on a dairy farm and spent a lot of time on horseback. He started volunteering at age 16 when he began visiting nursing home residents. Eventually, he blended horses and volunteerism into his own brand of animal therapy.
Hohstadt said research has established the healing power of the human-animal connection. Time with animals, he said, releases endorphins, relaxes, reduces pain, lowers blood pressure and reduces depression and feelings of isolation and alienation.
Hohstadt, once an insurance company executive, started doing pet therapy six years ago and established a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation called the Triple B Foundation last year. Donations don’t nearly cover the expense of feeding and housing the horses and gas for his travels, but the 51-year-old plans to keep going until his funds run dry. He volunteers five or six days each week, transporting Domi in the back of a specially outfitted Ford Lariat F-150.
When training a therapy horse for prison work, Hohstadt spends time desensitizing them to noise, eventually even using an airhorn.
“A correctional facility is an intense environment,” he said. “There’s lots of steel, concrete, echoes and bright lights.”
On Friday at EOCI, Domi and Hohstadt left the first batch of inmates and walked across the prison campus to another housing unit, this one for inmates who have followed the rules for 18 months or longer. The day room was less stark than the other, offering perks such as vending machines, microwave, television, coffee bar and exercise bike. Hohstadt led Domi to a round table where three inmates sipped coffee. Domi nuzzled one of them, Gerardo Lopez, in the face. Lopez grinned and wrapped his arms around the mare’s neck. Antonio Sanchez lay down the colored pencils he was using to make greeting cards and scratched the diminutive equine behind the ears. The other inmate, Jose Perez-Moreno, shook his head in wonderment.
It is such reactions that keep Hohstadt coming back to prisons.
“I wouldn’t trade this for anything,” he said. “I’m along for the ride and it has changed my whole world.”
Hohstadt admitted he didn’t know what to expect the first time he went inside a correctional institution.
“I had never visited a prison in my entire life,” he said. “After one visit, I knew this was where I was meant to be.”
For more information about Hohstadt’s animal therapy program, go to triplebfoundation.org.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-966-0810.