Big smiles, small package

Life is good with Pumpkin the miniature horse

Laura Skinner introduces Pumpkin to 4-year-old Selena, who promptly gives the tiny equine a kiss.

Laura Skinner introduces Pumpkin to 4-year-old Selena, who promptly gives the tiny equine a kiss.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Meet Pumpkin:
Learn more about Visits of Smiles at

Laura Skinner and her husband, Graham, pulled into a parking lot at Lower Bidwell Park, and before the Chico couple could complete the short walk to the shady area adjacent to Sycamore Pool for an interview with this reporter, they were surrounded by curious park-goers.

The reason: Pumpkin, the miniature horse, who is so small that she fits into the back of their SUV.

All of 27 inches in height and about 150 pounds, the brown and white pinto is something of a magnet. Kids and adults alike approached the Skinners and asked if they could pet the tiny equine, and Pumpkin appeared just fine with them obliging each and every request. Indeed, she didn’t flinch when a little girl smooched her muzzle.

“We love giving people something to smile about,” Laura said. “And Pumpkin loves giving kisses.”

They enjoy it so much, in fact, that the Skinners go out of their way to share Pumpkin with the community. Under the apt moniker Visits of Smiles, they travel to places like local hospitals, rehabilitation centers and schools with the little mare, who is a certified therapy animal.

Graham recalled the couple’s first outing at a senior living facility. They’d been cautioned by the staff not to get discouraged by one of the wheelchair-bound residents who likely wouldn’t respond. The gentleman in question wasn’t able to move the left side of his body and hadn’t spoken since having a stroke. Undeterred by the warning, the Skinners approached the man and, amazingly, he stroked the little equine with his left hand and uttered the word “horsie.”

“The whole place burst into tears, and that was a sign. This works,” Graham said.

Skinner says she and the miniature horse have a strong bond.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

For Laura, giving that kind of joy to others is extra special because she herself went through a really rough patch and was aided by Pumpkin. An equestrian who rode thoroughbreds for many years, and competed in hunter-jumper competitions, she took a bad spill about a decade ago while going over a large jump called a double oxer.

She shattered her hip and had to undergo several medical procedures, including multiple hip replacements and bone grafts. One of the surgeries required her to stay immobile for 13 weeks. At one point, Laura was told that she may have to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

It’s around that time that the Skinners met Pumpkin, then just six months old, at a boarding facility.

“She immediately brightened my life,” Laura said.

Graham recognized that in his wife and eventually acquired the tiny equine and brought her home with him. It was a life-altering decision for the then-immobile Laura. She walks with the aid of a cane today and says that Pumpkin helped her greatly in the recovery process, and not just its emotional aspect. She recalled putting her arm around the miniature horse’s neck and being physically helped up by her.

That led to a training program for Pumpkin, a certified service animal who can do things like push the buttons that trigger ADA-accessible entries on buildings and hold open doors.

“We’ve created a bond that you’d never believe,” she said.

The Skinners, who’ve been married for 31 years, started using Pumpkin as a therapy animal regularly about six years ago. And today, they have a pretty full schedule, typically three to four outings a week. Donations from those who seek out the service help pay for the Skinners’ travel and other expenses. It’s by no means a money-making venture, but rather a labor of love.

“The joy she gets out of this is what makes her life,” Graham said. “So Pumpkin helps us all.”