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

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 long 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, and 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, as small as big dogs, are equines on a medical mission to 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, perhaps even speeding healing and recovery.

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

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

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

"We have long had animal-assisted therapy here at Rush and just seen the enormous benefits that animals can have on most children just the joy that they bring, the unconditional love," said Robyn Hart, 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, but minis are less stout, with a more horse-like build. The therapy they offer contrasts starkly with the austere high-tech hospital environment 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, after gently tracing 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, and 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, a co-author of the review, owns seven dogs, four regular horses and a donkey, and strongly supports animal-assisted therapy.

Burton acknowledged that skeptics dismiss it as "touchy-feely" and lacking hard evidence of any meaningful medical benefits. She said studies are needed on whether animals in hospitals can shorten patients' stays and reduce readmission rates something her hospital is looking into with dogs and heart failure patients.

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

Guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that animal-assisted therapy in health care settings stems from evidence that having pets at home helps some patients recover more quickly from medical procedures. The guidelines focus mostly on infection control procedures and hand-washing for patients and hospital staff.

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 and no one seemed phased.

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?

Assigned 20 times

  • devonm-3
    12/11/2014 - 10:23 p.m.

    Mini horses come to greet patients. Hospital patients go through a lot and need some comforting and what better than a mini horse. The children especially love the furry friends as they loved to be petted and loved. The animals tussle up against sick patients and bring them joy and excitement. Some experts say the animals visiting the hospitalized helps the healing and stress. Others say it is just "touchy feeley". All in all the patients enjoy the surprise and love from a kind mini horse. This is a wonderful idea and is very kind. A surprise like this during a day filled with pain would make almost anyone smile. The horses are bringing hope and joy to the sick and that is a beautiful thing.

  • KiraWvA-4
    12/12/2014 - 12:12 a.m.

    Therapy dogs sound familiar, but therapy miniature horses (no, they're not Shetland ponies) are making a debut at a Chicago Hospital. Animal therapy has been linked to a diminishing of pain and fear, especially in young children, but the most powerful thing is the love patients feel when an soft, warm animal shows up at their bedside. The two miniature horses, Mystery and Lunar, are part of a group called Mane in Heaven, which visits the disabled and sick to bring joy. I like this article because of the horses, the horses, the loving receptions of the patients, and the horses.

    12/12/2014 - 12:08 p.m.

    I have Miniature Horses, 4 of them, and i show them. One of them(Milkshake) is the smallest mini horse in my community, and at the fair, nursing homes come out and it's just like she's a therapy pony. She loves the attention.

  • ws2001wrex
    12/12/2014 - 01:04 p.m.

    Jodie Siegel uses mini horses because, full grown horses are too big for the hospital and harder to handle. Also, they could be disrupt and broke objects.

  • Ashleypatt
    12/16/2014 - 01:54 p.m.

    Patents in the hospital go through alot some could be dying where they cant get fixed at all or theres some that are taking care of. Horses bring joy to people especially ponies. There my favorite kind of animal because they are so sweet and they love when you pet them and so that you love them. There really soft where you just want to cuddle with them.

  • BAlyssa-Sti
    12/17/2014 - 10:50 p.m.

    I think it is very sweet that they bring horses into hospital and making the sick happy and filled with laughs. They should do it more often. I am glad more and more people are starting to think horses are lovely and they make a lot of people happy.

  • reaganlovestea
    12/18/2014 - 01:48 p.m.

    How amazing! That must have put the biggest smile on the patients. I think she used mini horses because they are easier to control in a hospital, and bigger horses would overwhelm the smaller patients. This article makes me feel so good inside. :)

  • MFrancisco-Sti
    12/19/2014 - 10:04 a.m.

    M - Tiny horses are making sick people happy.
    E - They take the horses from room to room and making sick patients happy and make them laugh.
    A - I think that horses are a good way to make people happy.
    L - Horses are the new happy cure.

  • CharismaM
    12/28/2014 - 04:59 p.m.

    I think this is such a great thing to do for those who are going through a stressful time in their lives. Especially for those who have been stuck in the hospital for awhile. These horses made people happy for a day.

  • 9jesmith
    1/08/2015 - 09:56 a.m.

    I think that Jodie Siegel uses mini horses instead of full size horses to take to hospitals because a full size horse would take up to much space in the hospitals rooms.

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