UNO alumna benefits from miniature service horse: “She changed my life”

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Kamrin Baker
EDITOR IN CHIEF

An adult woman with a miniature service horse.
Flirty the service horse and handler Abrea Hensley run errands together on a Saturday afternoon. Photo by Kamrin Baker/the Gateway

Abrea Hensley used to abandon her cart in the grocery store. Her PTSD-induced panic attacks and dissociative episodes would strike in public, leaving her defenseless and unable to accomplish everyday tasks.

Then, in walked—or galloped—a miniature horse … yeah, no kidding.

Hensley adopted her miniature service horse, Flirty, about two and a half years ago, after learning the Americans with Disabilities Act approves two types of service animals: dogs (to which Hensley is allergic) and miniature horses.

“I had spent months searching the whole country for a service horse,” Hensley said. “And it was funny because I ended up finding her in Lincoln. It was an instant connection.”

Hensley, who lives in Bellevue, said that her seven-year-old horse has “completely changed” her life.

“Since I started working with her, I can actually go out and do things,” Hensely said. “I can pretty much go back to having a normal life. Obviously, toting around a horse isn’t exactly normal, but it’s as close to normal as I can be.”

While it was definitely strange walking into a Scooter’s Coffee shop to encounter a miniature horse, Hensley proved she needs the support of her four-legged, purple-harnessed friend.

“Her most helpful thing she does is that she will alert me before I have an anxiety attack,” Hensley said. “She can warn me when my heart rate and my cortisol levels are starting to go up. That way, I can go ahead and do some of the exercises I’ve learned in therapy to help avert the pain. Or I can take my medication, if that’s necessary.”

Flirty can also help bring Hensley down from instant panic attacks with acute triggers. In addition, the gray mare wears a rope on her harness that Hensley can grab when she begins to dissociate, which is a psychological phenomenon that detaches one from their physical and emotional surroundings.

“When I dissociate, I don’t know where the ground is,” Hensley said. “And I can hold onto her and know where I am.”

Flirty also reminds Hensley to take her medicine and is trained in blocking, meaning she can stand between Hensley and other individuals so they do not get too close in public.

While many of Flirty’s skills come naturally, and from years of obedience training in her earlier life as a show horse, Hensley trained her extensively to behave appropriately and helpfully.

“Her natural way of alerting me to things was to act really impatiently, you know, just stomp and dance around, but I had to take that and teach her to just gently touch me with her nose,” Hensley said. “She is very food-motivated.”

Although Flirty is well-trained—she even fell asleep in the coffee shop, she was so in her element—she and Hensley were not prepared for their most recent adventure: going viral.

When Hensley traveled via American Airlines on a trip to Chicago recently, Flirty was the talk of the skies. Social media posts and news outlets quickly reported on the pair’s journey, and Flirty’s internet following skyrocketed. @flirty.the.mini.service.horse is just shy of 13,000 followers on Instagram at the time of this writing.

“It was really empowering to fly and know that I could do that,” Hensley said. “Flirty handled everything like a pro, but it’s always the question of how others are going to react. It’s also a small space for her, so I think I’ll reserve flying for emergency circumstances.”

Others definitely do react. A man in the coffee shop exclaimed “that’s a horsey!” and took a photo of the dynamic duo without asking permission, which Hensley said is “an invasion of privacy.”

Hensley said she often has to bring up the Department of Justice website to show businesses she is allowed to have Flirty. She has been kicked out of public shopping centers. She is still receiving negative comments on social media from her flight to Chicago.

“I get that she’s unusual,” Hensley said. “But what I’d like people to realize is that these animals are what allows us [people with disabilities] to live fairly normal and functional lives. These animals aren’t fashion accessories. They are necessary medical systems.”

While Flirty is quite a sturdy piece of medical equipment, she’s also just a good friend.

“Everyone who knows her and is able to interact with her says she is the most spoiled horse around,” Hensley said. “She has it pretty easy. She works a few hours every week, and in return, she gets the best hay Nebraska can give her.”

It is in the crucial services and the peaceful moments at home that Hensley realizes she has found some healing—neigh—the greatest form of healing yet.

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