It's hard to say which is more startling, the sight of Petie the pony strolling the wards at Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio—or seeing him matter-of-factly trot through the hospital's revolving doors and casually ride the glass-walled elevators as he makes his twice-monthly rounds. Once on the floor, the 13-year-old miniature horse-and-pony mix pays bedside visits to the young patients. "I just think he's so cool," says Jacob Shrock, 13, in for a recent appendectomy. "I couldn't stop petting him."

Which is fine by Petie, who has been a fixture at Akron since 1997. He likes to lay his long nose right on a child's bed, inviting gentle stroking and scratching. "He's got an amazing temperament," says Petie's handler Richard Miller, who has escorted the horse everywhere from the burn center to the cancer ward. Adds hospital pediatrician Robert Stone: "He's another way of letting children know they don't have to be scared in a scary place."

Before Petie can clip-clop his way down the halls, he must undergo a painstaking cleansing process, beginning with an hour-long bath and shampoo; he also has his hooves and tail wrapped in veterinarian's tape to keep them clean. As for bathroom breaks, "he's what we consider housebroken" for two-hour increments, says Sue Miller, cofounder along with Kim Gustely of Victory Gallop, a therapeutic riding center in Bath, Ohio, that Petie now calls home. The final touch? An all-over spritz of Listerine. "It pretty much kills any horse smells," says Sue, "since not everyone loves pets." But never mind the neigh-sayers. Sums up 15-year-old patient Amanda Weber after nuzzling with Petie: "Pretty cool."