Valentia-based miniature horses bring joy to local seniors

By Geoff Coleman

Patti Sheppard with one of her miniature horses. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

Nearby, and soon, a horse named Red, Mia, or Max will enter a seniors’ home or a homeless shelter wearing a diaper and booties.

I am not making this up.

The horse — actually a miniature — will be under the care of Valentia’s Patti Sheppard, and is part of a unique form of equine therapy where the animal is brought right into a facility giving residents the chance to interact with it.

Sheppard had St. John Ambulance training with therapy dogs, and in 2017 thought the same philosophy behind canine therapy could be applied to horses. She set out to buy one miniature, came home with three, and started taking them to public events.

Response to the animals was so positive after the first year that she saw the opportunity to offer a different kind of experience for seniors, or students, or people with anxiety issues and other forms of mental illness, and expanded her programming to institutions in February of 2018. As of December 2019, she has gone full-time, with near-daily visits to facilities from Scarborough to Peterborough.

A typical visit would occur in a common room, where residents with sufficient mobility can approach the horse. For less mobile participants, Sheppard will guide the horse to the person, or take it on room-to-room visits. The horses’ height puts them at a near-perfect level for interaction with a person who is not able to leave their bed or wheelchair. Feeding is not permitted, but participants are encouraged to pet the animals.

Reaction to the horses has been extraordinary. She singles out a patient who would barely move her arms in physiotherapy reaching out to hug the horses, and an ESL class made up largely of Syrian refugee children that found in the horses a bridge between the culture of their homeland and Canada.

Not every interaction has been positive. In a scene out of Blazing Saddles, a patient in a ward for people with dementia actually punched one horse in the face. With no warning, Sheppard could not move the horse out of harm’s way, but the animal, which has a calm temperament in the first place, did not respond in kind. To work in these environments, the horse must be able to ignore sudden and loud noises, be comfortable around wheelchairs and walkers, and — most importantly — move when, and as directed, by Sheppard. The animals often get crowded by enthusiastic participants and for everyone’s safety, the horse must respond to the trainer’s commands.

Sheppard’s horses are known as Class B animals, meaning they were bred to be work animals, commonly used in mines to pull carts. Measuring under 36 inches (90 cm) high at the last hair on their mane, they can pull four times, and carry 20 per cent of, their body weight. A miniature differs from a pony in that the ponies have stockier bodies and short legs, and measure no more than 14 hands, 2 inches about 4½ feet or 1.5 metres). The prize-winning incarnation of a miniature would really look like a standard horse that has been scaled down in every dimension.

Interest in the horses from inspired Sheppard to host Sensory Saturdays at her farm southwest of Lindsay. Visitors to the grounds interacted with the horses, but also with other standard horses, goats, sheep, and a pig named Arnold. Geared to individuals with autism, the event also gave attendees the chance to participate in activities that would occur at a competitive horse show.

Dates for the coming year have yet to be finalized, but interest from the Saturdays was so high in 2019 that Sheppard formed a team from participants to compete at horse shows. Competitions range from an obstacle course, to hunter-jumper events, to the fun costume class.

While equine therapy has been written about since Hippocrates’ time, therapeutic riding became a thing in the 1950s after an Olympic dressage silver medallist claimed riding helped her recover from polio.

Proponents believe the physical cadence of a horse can stimulate one’s muscles and spine, improving motor skills, balance, coordination and physical rehabilitation, but most major studies disagree. They claim there’s insufficient scientific evidence that equine-assisted therapy effectively reduces pain associated with physical disabilities.

On the other hand, evidence does suggest equine therapy can contribute to improved mental health. A study of 60 clients at four addiction and mental health treatment sites in Saskatchewan determined that “participants all commented on or reported a sense of happiness following sessions with therapy horses.”

The psychological benefits of regularly working with a horse seem undeniable. Even miniature horses are still powerful animals that aren’t going to tell us what they are going to do next, so it is logical that people could initially be intimidated by them. But horse-lovers will tell you that most horses want to be your friend, and if you can work through that initial fear, the confidence built is bound to help in other situations in life that create anxiety.

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