ARGYLE, Texas -- A trio of protective llamas, two curious goats and another miniature horse crowd around while a tiny prosthetic limb is fitted to Midnite's deformed hind leg. Bob Williams strokes the 4-year-old miniature horse, puts head to heart for a "bonding moment," gives him a smooch and turns him loose.
Midnite takes a few tentative steps and then breaks into a joyous gallop, weaving among the other once-neglected creatures at Ranch Hand Rescue, a nonprofit sanctuary started by Williams for special-needs animals.
After ProsthetiCare of Fort Worth, Texas, designed and donated the $14,000 artificial limb, a video of Midnite's first ramble on his new leg became an Internet and TV sensation.
"When he took off, it was literally a miracle," said Dona Schroetke, an Argyle, Texas, councilwoman and member of Ranch Hand Rescue's board of directors.
Williams can only shake his head in amazement -- at both Midnite the unlikely celebrity and the outpouring of touching e-mails and phone calls from around the world.
A mother still grieving her son's suicide three years ago thanked Williams and Midnite for giving her "a moment of hope." A woman relayed a message to Midnite from her mentally challenged sister: "Midnight is so beautiful my heart goes out to midnight get well midnight i want you to run like the wind, love erin."
And a 9-year-old Denton, Texas, girl who will have a leg amputated in April, came to meet the little horse. After the operation, she wants Midnite to make a hospital visit.
"Watching Midnite run gave her hope," Williams said.
Midnite's first stop on his road to recovery was at the Humane Society of North Texas after a Johnson County sheriff's deputy seized the horse from a family who said they could not afford to care for him, said Sandy Grambort, the agency's equine and livestock coordinator. The owners said the horse had injured his leg, but veterinarians think he was probably born with a deformity, she said. "He was miserable and extremely depressed. He was standing all the time because he had such a hard time getting up when he laid down," said Grambort, so she called Williams.
Soft-Ride Equine Comfort Boots, a small San Antonio company, helped by donating one of its padded horse orthotics normally used when hauling an animal, Grambort said.
Williams said he took the idea to the next step after he saw a TV show about fitting a baby with an artificial limb.
He called ProsthetiCare. Lane Farr initially thought it was a crank call.
But then he became intrigued.
"It was a huge challenge. A human patient can give you feedback, but with a horse, you've got to get it right. I think God had a little hand in it," said Farr, director of operations for the company, which was founded in 1992 by owner Tim Goldberg, who lost a leg in a rock-climbing accident.
Farr, a former University of Oklahoma football player whose father was an amputee, studied videos on horse mechanics and came up with a two-piece clamshell device with gel cushioning that fastens together with Velcro straps. It has a rolled rubber "hoof" so Midnite can keep his gait, Farr said.
At the second fitting of the prosthesis March 22, Midnite accepted it like a horse that was born to run.
"We just planned on him being able to walk, and he took off as soon as he realized it was there. It was almost like he was thanking us," he said.
"I had no idea it would blow up the way it did. I had a friend in Manchester, England, and he saw it on the BBC. We were just donating to a great cause. We didn't do it for publicity."
But the horse world has taken notice.
"I've gotten five calls from horse lovers with injured animals. Usually when a horse goes lame, they have to put it down, and this might help save some of them," Farr said
Ranch Hand Rescue specializes in abused, abandoned and neglected animals, and the sanctuary houses about 70 animals that include four other miniature horses, potbellied pigs, chickens, ducks, turtles, sheep and goats.
Most were seized by law enforcement agencies from neglectful owners.
Midnite's "miracle" will surely help the cause, Schroetke said.
"It's like he knows he has a mission," she said. "He's going to be a great ambassador."
But his rehabilitation will be a long process.
"It's expensive. He's had huge medical costs and requires a lot of care. It takes two people to put the prosthesis on and take it off. We have to massage his atrophied leg every day until he adjusts to it," said Williams, who adds that all the publicity has resulted in a few donations.
"I didn't do this for notice. We just love animals, and we want to save the ones we can."