Mini-horses swing by Glen Cove Hospital for therapy session

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Last Friday, around lunchtime, Glen Cove Hospital staff took a break from their routines to enjoy a few minutes of horseplay in the employee parking lot. For two hours, employees visited with two miniature horses to relieve the stress from the coronavirus pandemic as it nears the two-year mark.

“We felt it was a nice break and something to relieve the stress from dealing with Covid and the isolation of being in the hospital so long,” Doreen Mather, a nurse navigator and head of patient and customer experience, said. “It was something nice we could do as a way to say thank you to the employees and staff.”

The two horses, Aidan and Pearl, both 11 and about 36 inches tall, arrived at the hospital in a minivan, accompanied by staff and volunteers from HorseAbility, a nonprofit therapeutic sportsmanship center in Old Westbury. The organization has many programs that promote the physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual well-being of participants, based on the idea that lives can be improved through interactions with horses. Hospital employees took a few minutes to pet the animals and pose for photos.

“I think that sometimes just being next to an animal is soothing. It creates a sense of calmness,” Mather said. “For 10 minutes, the employees here can forget they’re at work, and it’s like being somewhere else. The feedback from everyone so far has been tremendous.”

Dr. Conor Sperzel was among those who stopped by to meet Aidan and Pearl. “They’re adorable, and it’s just a nice, unusual thing to have to bring up the mood,” Sperzel said. “It’s always very busy, so it’s nice to get a few minutes out of the day to come and unwind and decompress.”

David Laven, a medical student at Stony Brook University who is studying occupational therapy in the hospital’s brain injury unit, agreed. “I think it’s great,” he said of the horses’ visit. “Being a student, I’m usually cooped up in the office trying to get as much work done as I can, so it’s great to come down and check this out for a few minutes to take my mind off the busyness. It’s a welcome respite.”

Jeanne Doris, who has been a volunteer with HorseAbility for 12 years, said the horses travel frequently to nursing homes, assisted-living centers, camps and schools as part of the organization’s program. “I get a big enjoyment out of this, as everyone else does,” Doris said. “The horses really like what they do, and they enjoy being touched.”

Jamie Kolodziejski, HorseAbility’s operations director, said the use of horses as companions has grown, providing what she called therapeutic horsemanship. “Because of [horses’] nature,” she said, “it makes sense to do that.”

She said HorseAbility acquired Aidan and Pearl as a team when they were young, and getting them ready for a therapy program required training. “When you start a horse working for a therapy program,” she said, “you’re looking for them to have a mild-mannered disposition. Once you have that baseline, you want to let them experience something they might see — sounds, smells, people rushing around, wheelchairs, walkers — and see how they react. Once they see it a couple of times, it becomes second nature to them.”

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, Kolodziejski said, the horses went on four to six visits a week to nursing homes, hospitals and schools. “They’re trained to go in and out of elevators,” she said. “They are very tolerant of the environment with everything going on.

“In my experience with being around horses,” she added, “horses mirror how we feel. A lot of times being around the horses will help to decrease stress and anxiety, because people want them to feel calm and relaxed. So then they feel calm and relaxed in order to get that response. I think it gives people a sense of comfort.”

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