Toby the Therapy Horse Helps Seniors Open Up

Visits from this horse bring joy and spark conversations among older people, even those with dementia


- Posted on Jan 2, 2019

Toby the therapy horse at the campus of the Good Samaritan Society - Windom.

Content provided by Good Samaritan Society.

It's a typical gray, late-fall day in Minnesota. It’s overcast, gloomy and cool. There’s a chance of snow in the forecast.

However, the campus of Good Samaritan Society – Windom is alive and warm with the arrival of Toby the therapy horse. Therapy horse?

Yes, you heard that correctly. A therapy horse. Shirlene Hvinden of Heritage Horses farm, who has a background in long-term care, loves to see people's faces come alive when Toby struts into the room. And so does Toby.

“Even those who are non-verbal, having a hard time or living in dementia care units will look at him and light up,” says Shirlene. “And Toby is so gentle and amenable to the residents. He loves them.”

As Toby trots through halls and into resident rooms, many stories of a simpler time are shared. Tales of the days when horses provided a source of power for family farms as well as for transportation are heard.

Many nurses shared that they had not heard people open up like this for a long time.

“A lot of the residents would normally be taking naps after lunch,” says Rick Musegades, a certified nursing assistant at Windom. “It was nice to see them out and about, talking to Toby.”

“It brings back that nostalgia of what was important to them. Maybe they grew up with horses or their family had horses,” says Shirlene. “But even if they didn’t, it really makes their day because it’s so unexpected to see a horse walking down their hall.”

Debbra Peterson, well-being consultant for the Good Samaritan Society, organized this event and others like it as a way to help improve the quality of life for residents, alleviate loneliness and to provide a break from the daily routine.

“You see people sparking up. They may not normally interact well with other people but they will with the animals,” says Debbra.

Watch as Shirlene Hvinden and Toby the therapy horse bring smiles to the faces of residents at Good Samaritan Society – Windom.

"Seeing the residents' faces light up is worth a million dollars." – Rick Musegades, certified nursing assistant at Good Samaritan Society – Windom 

Interacting would be an understatement. Residents follow Toby through the hallways, talking and laughing as if time and age had fallen away. “Especially with memory care, we can really unlock memories,” says Debbra. “We can see where the engagement starts to happen immediately with Toby.”

Why horses?

Shirlene remarked that dogs are usually a more accepted form of therapy. So when she talks to organizations about bringing a horse into their location, there is a bit of hesitation.

Apparently, Toby didn’t get the memo. “We are pioneering the way with horse therapy,” says Shirlene. “You just don’t see horses used the same way as dogs in therapy, but the effects are profound.” By the way, all of Shirlene’s horses, dogs and pigs are rescue animals.

“All animals deserve a chance. Different, not less, is not only a good tagline for the rescue animals, but also humans who are aging or cast aside,” says Shirlene. “Maybe that’s why I love working with the elderly. They may not be young anymore, but that doesn’t make them less special.”

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