The Texas Veterinary Medical Association last week inducted Buttons, an 8-year-old miniature stallion, into the Texas Animal Hall of Fame. Buttons was recognized for the happiness he brings by visiting local nursing home residents and handicapped children all over north Texas.
His visits to Bonham area nursing homes were instrumental in his earning this award, owner Leslie Cunningham said Monday.
Cunningham has 40 horses on her TLC Miniature Horse Farm in Biardstown not far from Paris. It's a place for children's parties, but she and husband Tony also breed miniature horses and sell them as pets, she said.
Buttons is their first miniature horse ever and the second horse in history to be inducted into the Texas Animal Hall of Fame. The first was a police horse severely injured in the line of duty.
"Most of them are dogs that dragged people from burning buildings or pulled them from wrecked cars. It's heroic type things. But Buttons has been in more than 75 nursing homes," Cunningham said.
"He averages between 50 and 100 charity events a year," she added. Handicapped children come to her home for the day and ride him. Nursing homes bring their more mobile residents for fishing and picnics.
"Nursing home residents don't want to wait for Buttons in their rooms. They're usually in the lobby waiting on him," Cunningham said. "They tell me about every horse they ever owned, what color they were and what they taught them.
"It's so wonderful because it brings back all the happy memories for them. I stay until we see every single resident. We go room to room for the ones who can't make it to the lobby."
Cunningham also does fairs with Buttons and gives free rides, mainly for the children who don't otherwise get a chance to be with these horses, she said.
All her horses are less than 34 inches tall and American Miniature Horse Association registered.
The Buttons story began when veterinarian Amy Ballard came to a birthday party at the Cunningham home and asked Cunningham what she does with the little horses.
"She asked if I'd consider letting her nominate him. You had to be nominated by a veterinarian and veterinarians are the only ones who consider the candidates."
Cunningham put together a list of everything Buttons had done in the past 12 months and came up with about 70 events. She gave it to Ballard, who decided to nominate Buttons.
Cunningham has owned horses her entire life, she said. Her grandmother always made sure she had a horse during her childhood.
"My granny taught me everything I ever knew about horses and I've never been without them, but I had a series of back surgeries and had to sell all my horses.
"I knew it was really hard for me to do but I didn't realize it was going to truly affect my life the way it did. I got to the bottom of depression," she said. "I didn't really see any reason to wake up every day."
She said she is thankful her husband saw what she was going through and also saw an ad in the paper for a miniature horse. She didn't want to go, but he "just kept on and on and on" and Cunningham agreed to go look, she said.
"I really only went to shut him up. We went to Bonham and these elderly people had this little horse. I got down on my knees and looked at him. He looked at me and I told my husband to go get the horse trailer."
Buttons' full name is Hankering Hannahs Shoe Button. His mother's name is Hankering Hannah and his father's name is Shoe Button.
Miniature horses average 35-year life spans, she said. "I've got a mare that's 22 years old that just had a baby this year. That's why they're in training now as seeing-eye animals. Some people rented a horse in Central Park and noticed it had learned to go when the light turned green.
"They thought, if horses can learn signal lights, wonder what else they can learn. They're training them for seeing-eye animals. The benefit is that they outlive dogs by three times. These little horses don't have to be replaced."
Cunningham will keep up Buttons' nursing home activity, she said, although she loves it when nursing homes bring their residents to visit her home, too.
"What I like about them coming out here, my cats are out here, ducks are on the pond and (the elders) line up with on the bank and fish for hours.
"They don't catch a thing and it never matters. They're absolutely thrilled to be outside with the wind and the leaves, the ducks and the cats. They love it and I'm so happy to be able to provide a place they can come."
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