Horses bring love and laughter to hospital patients Patient Emily Pietsch spends time with Mystery one of two miniature horses from "Mane in Heaven" that made a visit to the pediatric unit at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago (AP photos)
Horses bring love and laughter to hospital patients
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Though it may sound like one, this is no joke: Two miniature horses trotted into a hospital.

Doctors and patients did double-takes when the equine visitors ambled down corridors in the pediatric unit at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center. Wide-eyed youngsters hooked up to IV poles stepped into hallways to get a glimpse. Kids too sick to leave their rooms beamed with delight when the little long-lashed horses showed up for some bedside nuzzling.

Mystery and Lunar are as small as big dogs. They are equines on a medical mission. They offer comfort care and distraction therapy for ailing patients. It is a role often taken on by dogs in health care settings. Animal therapy, according to studies and anecdotal reports, may benefit health. It might even speed healing and recovery.

Mini-horses add an extra element of delight. Many kids don't know they exist outside of fairy tales.

"I want one," said 14-year-old Elizabeth Duncan. She stroked Mystery's nose from her hospital bed.

These horses and two others belong to the animal-assisted therapy group Mane in Heaven. It's based in Lake in the Hills, a suburb northwest of Chicago. The horses have visited nursing homes and centers for the disabled. This was their first-ever inside a hospital. It was also the first horse-therapy visit for Rush, and more are planned.

"We have ... seen the enormous benefits that animals can have on most children, just the joy that they bring, the unconditional love," said Robyn Hart. She is the hospital's director of child life services.

Mini horses "are something that most people, whether kids or adults, have never seen before, and so that builds in a little more excitement and anticipation. They almost look like mythical animals, like they should have wings on," Hart said.

Some people confuse these horses with better-known Shetland ponies. Minis are less stout, with a more horse-like build. The therapy they offer contrasts starkly with the hospital environment. They bring soft ears to scratch, fluffy manes to caress, big soulful eyes to stare into.

"They're so nice and they don't judge and they're so sweet," said epilepsy patient Emily Pietsch, 17. She had gently traced Lunar's heart-shaped muzzle with her fingers.

Mane in Heaven's owner, Jodie Siegel, a former obstetrics nurse, says the minis bring "smiles, joy, love and laughter and that's the true healing in action."

Some research has suggested that animal-assisted therapy may reduce pain and blood pressure. It also may decrease fear and stress in hospitalized children. But much of it is based on patients' reports.

A review of 10 years of studies about in-patient therapy using dogs, published in April in the Southern Medical Association's journal, concluded that it's safe and can be effective. Dr. Caroline Burton of Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, was a co-author of the review. She owns seven dogs, four regular horses and a donkey. She strongly supports animal-assisted therapy.

Burton acknowledged that skeptics dismiss it as "touchy-feely." She said studies are needed on whether animals in hospitals can shorten patients' stays.

Some worry about animals bringing germs into hospitals. Burton's review found no associated infections in patients.

Siegel, Mane in Heaven's owner, and her horse helpers carry lots of hand sanitizer and a pooper scooper on therapy visits. Siegel doesn't feed the horses beforehand to help avoid accidents. Even so, one of the horses pooped in a hallway during the Chicago hospital visit. But the volunteers cleaned it up in a flash.

The horses were "a smashing success," Hart said. "We're looking forward to having them visit monthly."

Critical thinking challenge: Why does Jodie Siegel use mini horses instead of full-size horses?

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COMMENTS (146)
  • Zaniyah-Abd
    12/10/2014 - 08:39 a.m.

    I thought that was sweet because they are putting smiles on they're faces.Also how they made the kids laugh they made me laugh too and it was cute.And it was cute by these horses.

  • ad2000softball
    12/10/2014 - 08:41 a.m.

    Jodie Siegel uses mini horses because for one, most people have never seen a mini horse in person, and two, if they used a normal sized horse, they probably wouldn't be able to fit it in the rooms of the patients.

  • kr2001blue
    12/10/2014 - 08:41 a.m.

    Jodie calls them mini horses because they are not the same size as full grown horses. They are small and adorable. They look like Pony's. They don't really look like full size horses since they are so small so you would call them mini horses.

  • evanr-Ven
    12/10/2014 - 09:09 a.m.

    Jodie Siegel uses mini horses instead of full-size horses because the full size horses might make louder nose than the mini horses and also the full size horses might frighten the children at the hospital.

  • laneyh-Fer
    12/10/2014 - 12:50 p.m.

    That was so awesome the miniature ponies help make a kids day in a hospitals day. It seems that all the kids enjoy having them there. I hope that they keep on having the ponies come to hospitals.

  • ce2001sparkle
    12/10/2014 - 01:00 p.m.

    Mini-horses add an extra element of delight. Many kids don't know they exist outside of fairy tales They give comfort care and distraction therapy for ailing patients.

  • ChloeJ-Cal
    12/10/2014 - 01:15 p.m.

    I just read about a company called ''Mane in Heaven'' bringing mini horses into hospitals to cheer up patients. The patients love them. It is so sweet of the company to do that.

  • Karena-OBr
    12/10/2014 - 01:43 p.m.

    I think Jodie brought mini horses instead of full-size horses because it would be more safe. It also said in the article that she brought mini horses because it brings more delight. I think its really nice for Jodie to bring mini horses in the hospital to make patients more happy. I enjoyed reading this article very much.

  • Avaw-OBr
    12/10/2014 - 01:46 p.m.

    I think she uses mini horses because big horses wouldn't fit into a little corridor also because big horses cause more havoc than mini horses. I think that it's wonderful that they have people come and bring animals to relive stress and heal them faster. Some of the states have a room full of puppies in colleges so when they are stressed out they can go play with the puppies. But now they bring the animals to hospitals and retirement homes, I myself think that's outstanding! It's very interesting how animals can help healing and maybe can benefit health.

  • Sandraj-OBr
    12/10/2014 - 01:55 p.m.

    Well, I think that the mini horses are better, because they can fit into small, skinny doors. They are also cute (maybe you don't think so, but I do). The horses would be too big to get in the doorway of the hospital, and hard to get to the hospital beds. Maybe if they could push them in, they still wouldn't fit into the doorways to the bed and patients. So, that's why I think mini horses are better for the hospital.

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