They’ve taught children to walk, talk and laugh without saying a word.
And they’ve done so in ways that still amaze those who work with them daily.
The use of animals for human therapy, whether it be horses, dogs or other animals, has grown in both frequency and awareness as more come to realize just how effective they can be.
“Animals change lives,” says Sara Foszcz, who founded Main Stay Therapeutic Riding in Richmond.
A life-long horsewoman, Foszcz turned her boarding and training facility into a non-profit organization solely serving people with special needs nearly 25 years ago.
With about 100 volunteers, Main Stay now helps at least 80 students a week, ranging in age from 3 to a recent 91-year-old rider.
Instructors and horses work with children with developmental, physical and learning disabilities, abused children, paraplegics, sexual assault victims and children deemed at risk. The latest students include a group of seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
“I think animals have a real innate sense of what a person needs,” Foszcz says. “They don’t make judgements. They reflect so well what a person’s reflecting right back to that person. They’re such good teachers and they don’t hold grudges.”
On a recent morning, 4-year-old Savannah Jablonski of Twin Lakes, Wis., passed a bean bag from hand to hand while astride her horse.
Instructor Lori Cohen also asked her to work with rings, placing them onto a play sword while on the horse.
“Tell me the color of the ring,” she told Jablonski.
“What ring feels smooth?” she asked.
Along with the basic skills, children learn to follow directions, cooperate and perhaps most importantly, trust.
Abused as a baby, Jablonski was adopted this past year. Her mother Beci signed her up for lessons at Main Stay in the hopes of easing some behavioral problems, says her grandmother, Virginia Anzinger, who brought Savannah to the lesson.
“She’s doing better,” Anzinger says. “Some of the things she does on the horse are unbelievable.” Other children whose mothers say they’ll never speak will hear their children tell their horses, “Walk on.”
The children will talk because they want to develop a relationship with the horse, says Ann Henslee, Main Stay development director.
Simply the feel of the horse is powerful for some riders as a horse’s step is exactly the same as a healthy human’s step, Henslee says.
As those with Alzheimer’s groom the horses and work in the stables, they’re brought back to the sensations of their youth, Henslee says.
The repetition of the lessons help the seniors work on their memories, and they’re excited to talk about what they did that day, Foszcz says, “It just stimulates conversation.”
The goal is similar at Centegra Health System where 35 dogs regularly visit patients at both the hospitals, the skilled nursing facility and the behavioral health unit.
Centegra lead the way last year in updating state law to allow for therapy dogs in hospital rooms, says Bonnie Saban, who as manager of volunteer services works with the dogs and the program’s roughly 350 volunteers.
“It’s a distraction from being ill,” Saban says. “It’s also a motivator.”
By giving commands to the dog, stroke patients have learned to speak again, she says.
Some patients learning to walk or do daily activities again will tell their physical therapist, “I can’t walk. I don’t want to walk. I don’t want to try,” Saban says.
“The dog comes in and the therapist will say, ‘Will you walk with the dog?’” Saban says. “Before you know it, they’ve gone 80 steps, which is more than they’ve ever done before.”