CINCINNATI -- Wendy and Harley hoof it through the airport, decked out in their red and pink Valentine's best. Mouths drop and heads whip around. Many travelers haven't seen a couple quite like them before, especially not in an airport.
They're horses. Miniature therapy horses, to be more specific. They're in from Seven Oaks Farm in Ross for their twice-monthly visit to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
And their effect does seem to be therapeutic, or at least mood-improving. Those mouths that dropped in surprise quickly break into smiles. Suitcases and neck pillows and purses find a temporary home on the airport floor, freeing up travelers' hands for the more pressing task of petting the fuzzy, tiny equine.
The horses and their handlers can't get very far without attracting a small audience. And the people who stop vary greatly: A woman pushes a child's stroller near, at the same time that an apparent business traveler in a sportcoat bends down for a nuzzle. A pilot stops and raises his smartphone, long enough to take a few photos or maybe shoot a short video.
"They're just too cute! I have to take a picture," Marshall Baugh, who works in the airport, exclaims. "My granddaughter's gonna freak."
"Can I pet them?" more than one person asks.
Clad in a shirt with the hashtag #ittybittyhorses, Lisa Moad, president and founder of the nonprofit Seven Oaks Farm, is quick to invite them over. Her horses, after all, have trained for this, with Moad rolling suitcases past them or impersonating a "little-girl run" by rushing up and squealing.
"They're pretty well-received everywhere we go," she said. "Everybody loves us."
The places they go range from nursing homes to hospice care to police programs, with the horses changing vests and costumes to fit the occasion. The airport visits started a little less than a year ago in a case of serendipitous timing.
Wendi Orlando, senior manager of customer relations, was looking for a therapy program for the airport. "Many airports have dogs, so that was the initial route," she said.
As luck would have it, the very day she was researching possible programs, Moad sent her an email.
"Horses in Kentucky? We thought, 'hey, we can make that work,'" Orlando said.
Shortly thereafter, Moad visited the airport with Dakota, a white miniature horse that she sometimes decks out as a unicorn.
"It went over like gangbusters," Orlando said.
"They really are like celebrities," she said. (Well, they have been on NBC's Today Show.) "They walk through the airport, and people stop and take notice."
Therapy animals are not unheard of in airports. Orlando knows of many that have therapy dogs. San Francisco, because it's San Francisco, has a therapy pig.
"Airports are traditionally full of anxiety," Orlando said. "(Seeing animals) helps to ease those anxieties, to put smiles on faces, to just put people in a better place."
That's not just anecdotal: There's science behind it.
"There's a whole body of research literature on the effects of therapy animals that does show that there are positive effects," said Melissa Robin Shyan-Norwalt. She's an assistant professor-educator in the University of Cincinnati's department of psychology and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist through the Animal Behavior Society.
Some of those studies have shown that petting an animal can lower blood pressure and stress levels, she said.
"Not only does the animal like it, but it does do positive things for humans in a physiological way," she said.
Though Shyan-Norwalt hasn't seen studies specifically related to animals at airports, she speculates that the surprise of it could startle people out of their anxieties.
"Seeing a miniature horse is kind of unusual and fun, so it gets people out of their own worries," she said.
Moad actually got the idea to visit CVG after witnessing some of that airport anxiety.
"My husband and I were at an airport, and a guy was going off on someone at the counter," she said. "My husband leaned over and said, 'that guy needs a little animal therapy.'"
They've had horses for a long time. People constantly wanted to come to the farm to see them, so they started taking them out places. "It just caught on like wildfire," she said.
The program, which got its nonprofit status about two and a half years ago, uses about 25 miniature horses. With the help of her daughter-in-law, Kate Moad, and an additional part-time helper, she takes them out about five days a week. They're already booked through 2017.
Moad is hoping to get another team set up (another full-time staff member will be coming on soon) and to buy another vehicle so they can visit more places. Seven Oaks Farm is funded by donations, and Moad plans to start looking for grants.
"My husband and I very much believe in what we do, so we fund most of it," Moad said.
The payoff is the changes and reactions Moad sees in the people she visits.
In nursing homes, it's not uncommon for a nurse to tell Moad that a resident never speaks, and then for that resident to go on and on about the horses, maybe remembering a farm from their youth.
And then there are the reactions from youngsters. Moad remembers a little boy at a police event, on learning where her horses came from, running off. "Mom! Farms are real!"
When she visits Ronald McDonald House, she sees kids who've had a difficult day get a much-needed chance to just be kids.
"You can see the transformation in people," she said. "It makes all of the hours in the cold and the heat training worth it.
"Kindness goes a long way, and people respond to that."
The Cincinnati Enquirer