By Jodie Diegel, BSN, MBA, RNC, LNCC
Laura* is severely disabled, but when she spent time with Lunar, her caregivers at Little Angels, a non-profit skilled nursing facility in Elgin, Ill., witnessed something they had never seen. Laura began to move her fingers back and forth. Lunar is not a doctor or a therapist, but a 6-year-old specially trained miniature therapy horse from the Northern Illinois-based non-profit organization Mane in Heaven that I started in 2012. Mane in Heaven specializes in animal-assisted activity and therapy visits. Our horses visit with people with physical, mental and emotional challenges — from people with severe disabilities to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to patients who are undergoing treatment for cancer.
Laura’s reaction was no surprise to me. We witness this type of reaction all the time when Lunar — with her chestnut brown coat and blonde eyelashes and her gentle demeanor — or one of her fellow mini-horses meet our clients. I recall another visit between a young man who was blind and disabled and Turnabout, a 3-year-old mini-horse. Turnabout is the only boy in the bunch and has the biggest personality. When the young man put his hands on Turnabout’s face, they obviously made a connection because the man laughed exuberantly again and again.
It brings us joy to see the light, laughter and hope our minis provide to people experiencing profound illnesses or disabilities — not to mention that these visits can lead to improved physical, mental and emotional well-being.
I remember when the idea of working with mini-horses came to me. I was surfing the Internet one evening in December 2011 after volunteering with my two therapy dogs, Buffet and Dudley, when an advertisement caught my eye. “Mini Therapy Horses for Sale,” it said. I thought, “I have two big horses, so I know horse behavior, and I’ve done a lot of obedience training with my two therapy dogs. I can train mini-horses to do the same thing that Buffet and Dudley do.”
But I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Two months later, I had established a volunteer board of directors, including founding board member and friend Dina Morgan, RN, and had acquired three mini-horses — Lunar, Turnabout and 3-year-old Mystery, our smallest horse. In 2013, 2-year-old Jenella joined the group.
Mane in Heaven volunteers and mini-horses began site visits in June 2013, and since then our volunteers and horses have visited with thousands of people in need. We have relationships with numerous providers and non-profit organizations in the region, including Marklund, a home for infants, children, teens and adults with serious developmental disabilities; Gigi’s Playhouse, which cares for children and adults with Down Syndrome; Wings, which advocates for survivors of domestic violence, as well as homeless women and children; JourneyCare, which specializes in palliative medicine and hospice care; and Rush University Medical Center, a premier hospital located in Chicago.
A site visit usually lasts up to two hours and involves an exchange of unconditional love between the horses and our clients. People watch, pet, brush, hug and take pictures with the minis. Rather than thinking and talking about themselves and their problems, our clients focus on the animals. When our horses visit a care facility, the residents laugh and interact more, are mentally stimulated by the entertainment and are able to recall personal memories more readily.
When Corin Garcia, 19, from Palos Hills, Ill., met Lunar at a Mane in Heaven visit at Rush University Medical Center, it changed her whole perspective on her pending treatment. Corin told me it was a day she dreaded more than anything — admission day for “four tedious, boring days of chemotherapy,” she said. But Corin’s attitude changed when her she met Lunar. “I was in an awful mood, yet when two miniature horses walked through the door my mind cleared all its negative thoughts and my heart instantly melted. Being around these beautiful creatures made the worse day turn into the best I have ever had in the hospital.”
Mane in Heaven does not charge for visits; we rely on donations and fundraising, so fundraising is important work for our volunteers. Interest is growing in our services, thanks, in part, to media coverage by CNN, the Associated Press, and local media outlets. Having the support of volunteers helps us to maximize donations, but we hope to find others who believe in our mission and will also support us financially. While our horses are tiny, there are still significant expenses associated with running our organization. One day we’d love to open our own therapy center and acquire more horses, so we can serve more people.
Running a nonprofit business is challenging while also working full time, but I really never feel like this is work for me. While I may have had the vision for Mane in Heaven, our volunteers have made it a reality. We have a group of amazing and generous volunteers who help special horses help special people. Everyone has challenges in their lives, but whether we are with the minis at training sessions or on visits, we always feel happier and joyful after some “mini love.” We are the privileged ones to be on the other end of the rope.