Many people are familiar with the concept of therapy animals, which are animals that are trained to provide therapy services for seniors, people with disabilities, and people who need emotional support. Therapy animals are usually held to a certain standard and require training and certification. Guide dogs for people who are blind are a good example. Dogs and cats are popular choices, but they're not right for everybody. Dogs in particular may be too rambunctious or high-maintenance for many seniors, especially those who have mobility issues and who don't have the help of home care services. Seniors with allergies may also be unable to adopt a dog or a cat. Fortunately, there are plenty of other therapy animals to choose from.
For instance, the miniature horses of Horse Hugs charity show that therapy animals can come in all shapes and sizes. The charity is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and care of miniature horses and also provides equine therapy to people who are in need of emotional support. The all volunteer group facilitates visits with their miniature horses in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, assisted care centers, prisons, and juvenile detention centers. The horses bring an experience of joy and companionship to seniors, people with disabilities, at risk teens, and children with special needs.
Therapy animals can reduce loneliness, which is a major problem for seniors throughout the U.S. Spending time with an animal companion gives seniors a sense of purpose, and people with Alzheimer's often find interacting with a therapy animal to be very therapeutic. Horses in particular bring back so many memories to an older generation that used horses for working the farms and even transportation. Sandy Spooner of Horse Hugs has had seniors who hadn’t talked in months suddenly speak about growing up with a horse. Something just clicks in their memory the same way a certain song can take you back to a different time and place. A little horse power goes a long way!
Miniature horses provide ideal therapy services for seniors due to their small size and big personalities. These tiny equines are also trained to interact with people in a way that provides therapeutic benefits. The horses are calm and gentle, helping seniors feel encouraged to approach and pet them. The horses are also trained to be accessible to people with disabilities — even seniors who are bedridden can receive a nuzzle from a horse’s soft nose.
Sid is one of the miniature horses at Horse Hugs that visits patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and senior care programs. He is 18 years old and just loves people. When he visits with seniors, he always seems to find the one person who is having the worst day and he puts his head in their lap and snuggles with them. Caregivers are always amazed at how perceptive he is and he puts a smile on everyone's face.
Sid is a horse of many talents — he has also been a National Champion, competing in the miniature horse shows.
The Benefits of Equine Therapy
There are many health benefits from equine therapy. Medical studies indicate that even just stroking an animal can reduce a person’s blood pressure. Seniors who interact with therapy horses often gain increased confidence, reduced stress, better emotional awareness, and greater empathy.
One of the additional benefits of therapy horses is that by stroking a horse, seniors are actually doing physical therapy. Simple movements can be very difficult for seniors but sometimes they barely notice because they are so excited to be petting a horse.
There are different levels of equine therapy and activities vary from horseback riding to grooming. Miniature horses are ideal for seniors receiving in-home care services, since an in-home caregiver can help assist with visits. Miniature horses mainly provide the benefits of companionship and the joyful experience of interacting with a specially trained animal. The horses treat all people equally and provide a sense of safety and comfort to seniors.
Visits from therapy horses are a gift that keeps on giving. Since the beginning, Sandy has always taken photos of seniors petting the horses from Horse Hugs. She gives them a copy free of charge and they usually hang them up in their rooms. Grandchildren often see these photos and want to come in and meet the horses. This means they come and visit more often and the seniors love showing the horses to them. One of the policies at Horse Hugs is that visits are on a regular schedule, so that seniors have something to look forward to and have time to invite family members to be present for the visit.
Most importantly, interacting with miniature horses helps seniors appreciate the simple things in life. Sometimes, a gentle hug from an animal companion makes all the difference.