101st birthday surprise: Therapy horse visits senior living facility

Rene Singleton (left) celebrates her 101st birthday and is surprised by Wilma the therapy horse, and her caretaker Britany Morano on Thursday at the Sunrise Senior Living Facility. 041824 Katherine Quezada/The Signal
Rene Singleton (left) celebrates her 101st birthday and is surprised by Wilma the therapy horse, and her caretaker Britany Morano on Thursday at the Sunrise Senior Living Facility. 041824 Katherine Quezada/The Signal

Cornerstones Companions founder Britany Morano and her mentor Cindy Toganazzini made their way to Sunrise Senior Living in Santa Clarita with Wilma, a certified therapy rescue horse, on Thursday to surprise multiple residents who were celebrating their birthdays, including Rene Singleton, who will be turning 101.  

Singleton was being assisted by Debbie Gutierrez, the facility’s memory care supervisor, and she was astounded at seeing a real-life horse in the middle of her home courtyard, a place where she has enjoyed walks and conversations with other residents for the past five years.  

The large stallion towered over her small body but she happily balanced herself with one hand on her walker while she used the other to feed a fresh carrot to the horse who was wearing a “Happy Birthday” crown and “Birthday Princess” sash.  

The facility wanted to celebrate her and other birthdays during their spring celebration.  

Singleton was born on July 23, 1923, in England. Horseback riding was one of her favorite hobbies during her time growing up and she will gladly tell stories about her fond memories to faculty and other residents who share the same passion.  

Wilma the horse was willing to give her a ride, but Singleton declined. Singleton’s reason as to why she denied a ride: She wasn’t wearing the appropriate shoes or pants.  

“I’m not ready with shoes or anything,” she said, giggling. She was wearing a pair of slippers and lounge wear. To ride the horse, she insisted she needed her cowboy boots and the appropriate pants, she said, laughing.  

“When I first came over here [California], I used to ride all the time, but then the children came,” she paused. “And all the exciting bits fell off.”  

The mother of four is described as spunky, witty, funny and flirtatious by faculty. Singleton claims that she has multiple boyfriends at the senior living facility.  

She spent most of her youth living in various places due to her father being in the Air Force. During World War II her family migrated back to the United States during the trying times and she built a life in New York and then California, she said.  

Singleton has never really celebrated her birthday, she said, but the horse was a fun surprise. She also grew up loving dogs, cats, and parrots and had many of them as pets, she said.  

She had to take a short break from the warm sun and went to seat herself in the multipurpose room where it was a bit quieter. Just outside the doors in the other room, there was a live musical performance being held for the other residents celebrating the spring festivities.  

“They didn’t give me a chance to get my hair fixed,” Singleton jokingly scolded Gutierrez and Tammy Berry, the executive director of the facility. 

“She was very upset that I couldn’t get her hair fixed, her makeup, her outfit,” Gutierrez said.  

She has taken care of Singleton since she first came to the facility. At the time she was just a resident but now Singleton is under memory care due to her dementia, Gutierrez said.  

Despite the brain impairment, Singleton remembers a good amount, said Gutierrez, and is often the one who has conversations with everyone and doesn’t allow the impairment to dim her light. Her spunky personality and fun aura has allowed her to be one of the more popular residents and she continues to live life to the fullest.  

Morano was out on the courtyard greeting residents and taking selfies with Wilma as the main attraction. She took photos with the other residents who were celebrating and families who came to visit their loved ones.  

Morano founded Cornerstone Companions, a nonprofit organization that aims to train service dogs for individuals of all abilities.  

Morano wanted to uplift the Sunrise Senior Living community by bringing in Wilma, a 17-year-old rescued horse, to help create fun memories for the residents and share the organization’s expansion.  

“She’s got one eye, but she doesn’t let that stop her,” Morano said of Wilma. “She might look a little bit different, you know, so she can kind of relate to kids and people that may have some difficulties or disabilities. She’s the perfect candidate,” she said, and she softly petted Wilma.  

The Cornerstones Companions therapeutic riding program is in its early stages, but  Morano has been working hard for two years training Wilma and getting her ready to be of service for children and others who can benefit from the dog and horse therapy her organization offers.  

Her Santa Clarita-based organization, which was founded in 2017, is something she proudly boasts about because she’s witnessed how much animals can truly be of help. As a mother of two children on the spectrum, “giving people a sense of independence and restored hope,” is why she has continued to pour into the organization and slowly expand it to offer therapeutic services with horses. 

Gallery: Photos by Katherine Quezada/The Signal 

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