Therapeutic horses can merely be happy ones

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Two weeks ago, there was an interesting call left in Halcyon Acres voice mail. It was from a driver for Ferris Hills, an assisted care living facility. He was looking for an outing in the New York Finger Lakes area with horses for residents to pet and see (or feel – at least one was blind). This was a first for the facility and a bit of a surprise request. Of course (sad as it is) liability issues were a quick consideration, but after reflecting on the herd and the opportunity for all in such an experience, we scheduled a date.

Yesterday, almost a full bus load (far more than initially anticipated) landed at the farm to mingle with the animals. Gatsby (our resident assistant trainer who’s also a 90-pound mutt rescued from the Rochester City Pound thirteen years ago) greeted the visitors before they got off the bus – eagerly climbing the stairs as the door was opened to ask for directions. He was showered with lavish attention as he rested his head on laps and responded with his usual and obvious glee.

Gatsby loving the love
Gatsby loving the love

We had two weeks to think about how to orchestrate the event (weather could have been an issue, but fortunately, the rain held off so mud wasn’t a concern). Upon reflection, it seemed the best opportunity for residents would be if the bus drove through the 26-acre perimeter fence (too high and too solid a barrier for some residents to gain access to the horses) to a pasture that housed the largest herd group where a temporary fence line could be placed. It was a simple, but effective approach that allowed residents with a variety of impairments to reach and interact with this particular herd of eight horses. Four gate handles and two very long strands of Bay Guard® electric plastic/wire product proved to be a marvellous approach. Of course, we unplugged the fencer prior to the arrival of our guests.

The happy herd welcoming Ferris Hill residents
The happy herd welcoming Ferris Hills residents

Fortunately, we also had a yearling on the premises that was kind, quiet, unflappable and friendly enough to trust with the group. So we turned Redford (a Thoroughbred, surprisingly) loose in the area where the bus would be parked adjacent to the selected herd paddock prior their arrival. As it turned out, he was so calm and friendly, one of the residents thought he was a dog.

Redford ready to board the bus back to Ferris Hills
Redford ready to board the bus back to Ferris Hills

The whole event turned out to be a huge hit for all involved. The horses came running when called and kindly, happily and easily made themselves accessible to the visitors. All the residents were able to interact with the horses without concern or accessibility challenges. Redford thought about getting on the bus, but settled for being on the quiet ready for any who wanted to approach him with a walker, cane or outstretched hand. The staff had a ball too, and insisted on a portrait with Redford. Of course, Gatsby was almost hijacked, with his consent, but he left the bus with urging prior to the final departure.

Staff members Victoria and Ron getting their requested portrait with Redford
Staff members Victoria and Ron getting their requested portrait with Redford

Horses are amazing creatures. Certainly, handling plays a role, but it is amazing how often their keen insight dictates behavior with humans who may be challenged, impaired or frail. This whole event was therapeutic for both the horses and humans involved. The farm-owned horses relish any opportunity to have a job. This was a new experience for them that they approached with delight. The Ferris Hills’ residents will probably remember this outing for the rest of their lives – with the added treat of being able to tease those that weren’t on the bus. The staff will be held as examples of creative and responsive contributors. Gatsby’s still smiling.

This spark of an idea (Ron – kudos to you for idea and effort to make this so) may become a future ritual. Sometimes it’s the simple things that mean so much (for both horses and humans).

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