Smiling through their masks, patients find joy in STAR's mini horses

Published: May. 18, 2020 at 8:32 PM EDT
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For what may have been the first time in weeks, a handful of patients left the confines of Foothills Transitional Care and Rehab and journeyed to the parking lot where they were met with a special surprise. All of them were wearing masks, but one look at their eyes, and you could tell they were smiling.

Miniature horses and donkeys from Lenoir City's Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding (STAR) paraded past each resident, stopping for pictures, petting, and a moment of friendship.

Raeleen Stewart, Executive Director Foothills Transitional Care and Rehab, told WVLT News the visit on Monday, May 11, meant even more than the others that came before it.

"If you’re stuck inside, you seem to get depressed, there’s more depression. It’s important to enhance their overall well being - they actually get touched. It’s so important for their well being, there was no way we were going to skip this," said Stewart.

The residents were spaced apart and everyone wore masks.

"Even though we’re standing a few feet apart, we’re all wearing masks, we can still get smiles and laughter," said Melissa Abbey, Director of Special Services for STAR.

Before the pandemic, STAR visited Foothills every month for more than a year. Abbey said getting the green light from health officials to resume visits with the minis was exciting, "As soon as we got permission to meet outdoors with people, I knew that’s where I wanted to be was out traveling and doing what we do. If we can’t go inside at least go outside making people happy."

Abbey and her team from STAR weren't the only ones excited. Stewart said, "You can see the excitement in our patient's eyes...I think animals are a huge part of making somebody feel loved and secure and just to see how the ponies interacted with them, it touches your heart and I know it touches theirs."

The therapeutic benefits are far-reaching, Abbey said, "It elicits a lot of language and it gets people talking. The staff have told us about folks who haven't talked in months and will suddenly start telling stories about their childhood on the farm or a pet they had or a pony they had as a kid."

She said the impact is especially profound for those who struggle with memory loss, "They may not remember they pet a horse today, but they remember everyone was happy and smiling and laughing today, and that will help them be calmer and more peaceful for the next couple days at home."

STAR offers several programs designed to help people through the healing power of horses. The therapeutic riding program serves people of all ages with varying types of special needs. It's Heroes and Horses program helps veterans with disabilities. Changing Strides caters to at-risk youth, and Minis In Motion uses miniature horses and donkeys for tours at schools and long term care facilities.

STAR was created in 1987 and is the only therapeutic riding program in East Tennessee that holds premier accreditation from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), which sets international industry standards for health and safety.

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