Every morning when Dana Patterson makes the 45-minute commute from her home in Chester County to her shop at Lakeside Paws & Claws in Lake Wylie, she gives other drivers a sight they can't believe.
Riding along in the back of her SUV is her 80-pound, brown and white furry friend named Mini-Man. The unusual part is Mini-Man is a horse.
"He's a miniature horse, actually a mini-mini horse. We think he has a dwarfism gene," Patterson said.
Mini-Man stands about waste-high, eats hay out of a little red bucket and wanders around the pet grooming shop all day while Patterson works.
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"He's great. We take him to benefits and kids crawl around underneath him," Patterson said. "He just hangs out."
Mini-Man, who was rescued by Patterson from an elderly Clover woman who had been bottle-feeding him for more than a year, could have had a tough life in the wild or on a large farm. But thanks to Patterson, he's living comfortably.
Mini-Man is not the only one. For 13 years, Patterson has been working with animals in the Lake Wylie area. In 2002, she opened Lakeside Paws and Claws, an animal grooming and cleaning center off S.C. 49, which is much more than it seems.
"We do dog grooming, haircuts, a little foster care," said York native Jennifer Collard, who, along with a few part-time contributors, runs the shop with Patterson.
"It's just one of those things. I like what I do," Patterson said.
Caring for animals is in Patterson's blood. Growing up in Portland, Maine, her father trained German Shepherds for police work. Patterson, who spent 13 years working as a dog show handler of Akitas in venues including Madison Square Garden in New York before moving to South Carolina and becoming a groomer, started caring for ill and unwanted dogs and horses in about 1996. She really stepped it up when she opened her shop in 2002. Some animals have been close to death.
"Last August, I adopted three horses. One was nearly 500 pounds underweight," Patterson said.
Three Pageland residents had owned the horses. After months of neglect, the word started to spread through the rural farming community until it reached Patterson in Chester.
"Neighbors started talking about them. I heard gossip about starved horses," Patterson said. "Animal control had been out there to talk to them already, but once I had seen them, I knew what I had to do."
Patterson took out a $3,500 loan and bought the horses, along with their trailer and equipment.
As word of the rescued horses spread, help from the community poured in, Patterson said. Gaston Feed and Seed accepted donations to provide food for the horses, and Dr. John Chappell, a veterinarian at Chappell Animal Hospital in Rock Hill, used Craigslist to let people know about the situation and help with medical costs.
Patterson said both Chappell and Gretchen Love, a veterinarian for Palmetto Veterinary Medicine in Rock Hill, have been instrumental in helping her care for countless animals.
After nursing the horses back to health for four months, she gave one horse, the mother called Momma, to a Chester County girl as a Christmas present. Patterson said the girl's father is a friend of her fiancée, Pat.
"She rode it that night. It was a perfect fit," Patterson said. "It was all really rewarding -- a really awesome ending."
The other two horses, nicknamed Skinny (now called Drifter) and C.C., are still living with Patterson on her 35-acre property outside Chester.
She said Skinny is progressing well, and she will probably start looking for someone to adopt him soon. C.C. is much smaller than normal and needs a little more work, but Patterson said he should recover and be very healthy.
Patterson's pet family is now two cats, two ponies, six miniature horses, 14 full-size horses, and nine dogs after a recent take-in.
"An old man in Gastonia had to go to the hospital and the fire chief there let us know the dog needed somewhere to go," Patterson said. "So I'm going to keep it for now."
All of the animals are rescues, and she and her fiancée do all of the work together.
She said the dog, a lab-chow mix, has blended right in with the rest.
Patterson's nurturing nature carries to her customers as well. While Patterson and Collard are clipping and trimming dogs, their pet owners are welcome to come to the back of the shop to chat with the groomers as they work.
"My dogs are really shy. This isn't nearly as overwhelming for them as some big places," said customer Laura Taylor, who has been bringing her mixed breed dogs, Marley and Bradley, to Patterson for almost a year.
"It's more of a friendly, personalized atmosphere here," she said.
For Patterson, working with animals is personal.
"When I'm up with them at 5:30 in the freezing morning, sometimes I wonder what I'm doing," she said. "But I really have compassion for them. It's a habit. I'll be doing this for the rest of my life."