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Small horses share big mission

Kindergarten student Elliana Peterson, left, stretches out a hand for Elsa the miniature horse to sniff as, behind, her classmate Tanner LaBarge pets the white horse Wednesday at Great Lakes Elementary School during an outreach presentation from The Windchill Legacy. Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

Elsa and Peanut made their entrance to the delighted smiles of kindergarten students Wednesday at Great Lakes Elementary School.

Wearing Build-A-Bear shoes over their hooves, the two miniature horses walked past the children once, twice, three times. With each pass, more students reached out to touch their furry bodies and long manes.

For years, Polly and Gary Niemi have been bringing the joy of miniature horses to children while reminding them to take good care of their pets. They do it in memory of Windchill, a 9-month-old colt who didn't survive the damage brutal cold did to him.

Funded through the nonprofit Windchill Legacy, their message is simple.

"To treat animals with respect, and then also let that carry over to the people in their lives as well," said Polly Niemi. "Just respect and all it entails."

In a video presentation, "talking" horses, cats and dogs told the children about the things all animals need to be happy and healthy, everything from enough room, exercise and food to time with their people and a clean environment.

Then Gary Niemi and volunteer Julie Williams led in the two small horses.

Students piped up with questions after the visit: "How did you bring them here?" "How did you get the shoes on them?" and "How did the animals (in the video) talk?"

"Magic," Niemi replied to the last question.

As the children filed out, Isla Sandoval grinned.

"I loved the horses," the kindergartener said. "That was so much fun."

Windchill was found on a Douglas County farm malnourished, covered in ice and snow, and unable to stand on Feb. 9. 2008. With no access to shelter and the wind chill between 40 and 55 degrees below zero, the colt was near death. Neighbors took him in, the community rallied to care for him and gifts poured in on a national scale, but Windchill died 20 days later.

Using the donated funds, the Windchill Legacy was started. The first "mini" horse to share Windchill's story was Magic. She has since retired to Florida with her owner, and the Niemis took the reins. They have a stable of three mini horses they bring to classrooms and events throughout the area.

Recently, the small steeds were seen at the Mugs 'n Hugs event at Benna Ford, the Horse Expo at the Mariner Business and Retail Center, and Northern Lights Elementary School. They will make an appearance at South End Days in July.

"And I'm hoping a few people will ask us to come to summer schools," Polly Niemi said.

The Windchill Legacy is available for outreach in the Twin Ports area, with programs tailored to students of different ages. Niemi, executive director of the nonprofit, said they would travel as far as Cloquet and Solon Springs with the miniature horses. The appearances are free, but donations are accepted. Volunteers are needed for the outreach program, as well.

Williams, who is retired, has been volunteering with the outreach for the past few years. Love of horses roped her into it, and the impact the visits make on the children kept her involved.

"It's fun to see their faces when they meet the minis," Williams said. "That's the highlight."

The colt's plight also launched a bill to strengthen the state's animal neglect laws. The bill, known as "Windchill's Law," was introduced by Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, and other lawmakers in 2011 and reintroduced in 2012, but has yet to become a law. Milroy's office confirmed the legislator plans to reintroduce the bill when the time is right.

For more information on Windchill's Legacy, or to set up a visit from the miniature horses, contact (715) 398-5299, (218) 390-9190 or thewindchilllegacy@gmail.com or visit the Windchill Legacy Facebook page.

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