A helping hoof

A helping hoof

Little horses make a big difference in patients’ recovery

By Erica A. Hernandez
"Magic" a therapy horse, visits with patients at Shands Rehab Hospital./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

“Magic” a therapy horse, visits with patients at Shands Rehab Hospital./Photo by Jesse S. Jones

They’re small and cute with fuzzy manes and click-clacking hooves, but perhaps most importantly, miniature horses are now helping patients recover from illnesses and injuries at Shands Rehab Hospital. Training sessions with Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses are the newest form of therapy at the hospital and have become a Wednesday afternoon staple for patients.

“No one plans to go to rehab,” said Andrea Gilbert, a Shands staff occupational therapist. “Life threw a curveball, and now everything is hard. But the horses give (our patients) a reason to smile.”

An activity session entails a horse and a person working together to achieve similar goals. The pair practices walking over different surfaces, going up and down stairs and working on focus and balance skills.

Gilbert said up to one-third of her patients work with the horses on a weekly basis. She initiated the partnership with the Lake City, Fla.-based Gentle Carousel after watching one of her patients interact with a miniature horse at a fundraising event.

“She just lit up like a Christmas tree. The cute horse and the sunshine; all these factors came together and really made a difference for her,” Gilbert said.

Jorge Garcia-Bengochea, executive director and co-founder of Gentle Carousel, knows how difficult recovery can be. At age 9 he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle and treated at Shands at UF.

“Doing the work that we do now, I think of that. I would’ve loved to have a little animal visit me,” he said.

Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, education director and co-founder, said she and her husband chose to partner with Shands Rehab Hospital to make a difference in patients’ lives.



But the patients aren’t the only ones benefiting from the partnership.

The horses need to be trained to know how to interact with patients and walk on all kinds of surfaces. The rehab hospital provides a space for the horses to learn the necessary skills by actually practicing them with patients.

“We’re all working together and everyone benefits,” Debbie Garcia-Bengochea said.

John LeCain, a 66-year-old pastor from Palenville, N.Y., is a patient at Shands Rehab Hospital and worked with Hamlet the horse to complete his therapy. When he stood for the first time since his traumatic spinal cord injury, Hamlet was there.

“This is for you, Hamlet,” he said before he lifted himself out of the wheelchair.

One of Gentle Carousel’s horses, Magic, was named one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Heroic Animals.

Therapists at Shands Rehab Hospital have begun animal-assisted interventions during therapy sessions. This has included activities such as brushing and petting the horses to gain coordination and hand strength. They are also doing functional cooking activities to make horse treats.

“This way, they’re doing the functional activity — learning, following directions and moving — but it’s purposeful,”

Gilbert said.

Gilbert’s said the horses’ unconditional love and lack of judgment are just a couple of the reasons they have been so well-received at the hospital.

“They really serve a lot of people. We have a little gem here,” Gilbert said.