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Horse calls: Miniature lifts seniors’ spirits

Horse calls: Miniature lifts seniors’ spirits

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BLACKSBURG — Leslie Gregg got her miniature horse, Ringo, because she was looking for a companion for her riding horse. Three years later, Ringo is giving companionship and affection not only to his stablemates but to the human residents of English Meadows assisted living and memory care in Blacksburg.

“Hi,” squealed English Meadows resident Phyllis Hayes when she spotted Ringo ambling through the doors of her memory care unit on a recent afternoon. Hayes petted Ringo’s forelock, mashed her face against his nose and ran her hands through his mane. Ringo just gazed at her with dark liquid eyes that seemed full of love.

“Ringo was a wild yearling when I brought him home,” Gregg said. “He wasn’t used to people. My neighbor Diane Toney and I worked with him in the round pen until he learned to trust us. Ringo has the calm disposition to be a therapy horse.”

Miniature horses, barely taller than Great Danes, are joining animal-therapy programs in nursing homes and hospitals across the United States. In addition to having a cuteness factor that tops any Disney stuffed animal, the little horses are easy to touch, brush or pet by someone who is confined to a wheelchair or even a bed.

When Ringo appears in English Meadows’ lobby, eyes light up and blood pressures go down.

“Having Ringo visit makes the residents’ day,” said English Meadows administrator Melinda Collins. “It’s not often we bring a horse into the house.”

“I love watching the response Ringo gets from the seniors,” Gregg said. “Some fling their arms around him. When I see their happiness, I get as much out of the visit as they do.”

Admittedly, a lot of what makes Ringo so suited for this line of work — on top of his breeding — is being so adorably wee. But not every miniature horse is a good fit for nursing home visits. Gregg purchased Ringo, officially Sir Rockin’ Ringo, along with another miniature horse, Sir Maximus Napoleon. Maximus is a horse who loves too much, so he didn’t make the cut as a therapy horse.

“Maximus is too friendly,” said Gregg. “He’s all over people, which would be too much for some elderly residents.”

Because miniature horses are less than 3 feet tall and weigh as much as a portly man, they aren’t as imposing as full-sized horses to small kids and the frail elderly. But if you have a cookie or sandwich in your hand, watch out. Even well-trained Ringo can’t resist nibbling.

Gregg started visiting English Meadows with Ringo this year, after training him to walk on indoor floor surfaces and respond calmly to all kinds of people. Ringo has visited children’s groups and negotiated his way around walkers, wheelchairs and indoor furniture. He’ll be making an appearance at Blacksburg’s community center sometime in the new year; Blacksburg Senior Programs Supervisor Joy Herbert calls him “a sweetie.”

“Ringo is pretty easy to train,” Gregg said. “We practiced getting him to go into [my husband] John’s office to prepare him to go to the nursing home. Now he’d be willing to climb into a car. He’d follow you anywhere.”

Gregg says she and Toney use praise and rewards, never punishment, in their training. Ringo is as relaxed as a rag doll when Gregg puts sparkle on his hooves, a halo over his head and wings on his back. And yes, when he’s indoors, he wears a small diaper below his tail.

When Gregg goes running on the trails around Pandapas Pond, chances are good that both Ringo and Maximus will be running along with her. They’re trail running horses and she’s taught them cues. If she gives the word, Ringo is flat-out galloping.

“Talk about a workout,” Gregg said. “Ringo can outrun me.”

When Gregg takes Ringo on training walks around the Virginia Tech campus, where she once worked as a veterinary medical illustrator, she’s surprised at the student response.

“They’re usually on their devices, but when they see Ringo, they talk to us. They take our pictures. Sometimes they walk along with us and hold long conversations,” Gregg said.

The use of animals for therapy has a long history. The earliest incidence occurred in the 1700s in York, England, in a facility where mentally ill patients were allowed to roam the property in the company of small domestic animals. The cats, dogs and other pets helped them socialize and gave them a sense of security.

For at least 20 years, a volunteer nonprofit, Gentle Carousel Horses, has been going to comfort people who have been through some of the nation’s worst tragedies. The horses visited survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting as well as victims of Oklahoma tornadoes and those grieving the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They visit homeless shelters, hospices, hospitals – anywhere that people could use a pick-me-up bestowed by an empathetic miniature horse.

For Betty Gordon, a resident of English Meadows assisted living, seeing and interacting with Ringo transports the septuagenarian to a happy time.

“My uncle had horses, and I used to ride them,” Gordon whispers. “I love him, love Ringo.”

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