Miniature horse named Sprout aids hospital healing

Posted:   05/03/2012 04:00:00 PM MDT
May 4, 2012 9:32 PM GMTUpdated:   05/04/2012 03:32:02 PM MDT

By Cate Terwilliger
Special to The Denver


Memorial Health System in Colorado Springs delivers a dazzling array of high-tech medical care that spans the entirety of a human life, from neonatal intensive care through cardiothoracic and neurosurgery to end-stage cancer treatment.   

But one of the most potent weapons in its health-care arsenal is a decidedly low-tech healer who’s outfitted with nothing more than sneakers, a sunny disposition and the royal blue volunteer vest that bears his name:  Sprout.   Every other Wednesday, the miniature horse – he stands a scant 35 inches at the shoulder and weighs 250 pounds – wends his way through the hospital, where he evokes a spontaneous delight that briefly banishes the specter of sickness

Sprout is as popular with Memorial staff as with patients. The miniature therapy horse provides a brief but happy respite from the stress of hospital work. (Cate Terwilliger | Special to The Denver Post)

and stress.

“Nobody would ever expect to see a horse in the hospital, and I think it makes people happy,” says Leigh Frasier, youth programs coordinator at Memorial.  “It’s amazing to see the happiness on people’s faces – and the surprise – when the elevator opens, and there’s a horse standing there.”

A horse in sneakers, no less. Made for teddy bears, the shoes are a novel solution to the hospital’s slippery linoleum floors, on which Sprout fell during an early visit.   The footwear – he has several sets of varying colors – provides traction as well as panache.

Sustained by apples, carrots, Cheerios and the occasional peppermint, the petite pinto typically spends 90 minutes to two hours at the hospital, visiting pediatrics, rehabilitation and outpatient oncology as well as poking his pert ears into patients’ rooms.  At the other end of his halter rope is veteran equestrian and owner Gretchen Long, who has known 14-year-old Sprout since he was 2.

“When we’re at the hospital, even though it’s for a short period of time, we touch so many people in one visit,” she says. “It’s not just about the patients;

Sprout’s sneakers, made for teddy bears, are more than a novelty: They provide traction on slippery hospital floors. (Cate Terwilliger | Special to The Denver Post)

it’s about everybody who is just wandering through the hallways who stops and sees him.  A lot of times, it’s just a great distraction.”

One hallway encounter involved a Hispanic woman walking her mother to oncology in a wheelchair.   “I walked over to her,” Long recalls, “and Sprout, as soon as he zeroed in on her, put his head right into her lap.  She got very animated and started talking to me in Spanish about the horse, and then started telling me in English about having a horse as a child and growing up with horses.

“I didn’t think that much about it; it was just a nice visit.  But as we broke away from each other, her daughter thanked me profusely. She said

Sprout’s calm temperament and ability to tolerate strange noises and experiences — including riding on an elevator — make him uniquely suited to hospital work. (Cate Terwilliger | Special to The Denver Post)

her mother had not been that animated or spoken that much in months.”

Sometimes Sprout’s impact is subtle; other times, dramatic.   Long especially remembers a special-request  visit with a boy who had a severe brain injury.  “They specifically asked me to visit him because he’d been in the hospital for several days and was pretty much unresponsive – in a wheelchair, kind of strapped in,” she says. “He couldn’t sit up by himself.  … I later found out that he was in foster care and had been beaten.

“We brought him down to Sprout and you could see the reaction in his eyes right away. And then he reached out and grabbed Sprout’s mane, which was huge because

Wearing matching sneakers, Sprout and owner Gretchen Long begin their volunteer shift at Memorial Health System. (Cate Terwilliger | Special to The Denver Post)

he hadn’t shown any motor skills at all. “

That night, the boy started speaking, and when Long returned the following week with her therapy dog, he was sitting up on his own and talking.  Within a few weeks, he was discharged.

Frasier, who accompanies Long and Sprout on their rounds, has her own stories.  She recalls a hallway encounter with a woman and her daughter, who had severe cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair.   “Without saying a word or leading him up, Sprout walked up to her, and he smelt her and just put his head on her shoulder,” Frasier says. “And he stayed there for a couple of minutes. She was very excited in the beginning, and then she just calmed; this

Sprout dozes after one of his biweekly hospital visits. “I think he enjoys it, but I don’t want him to burn out,”says owner Gretchen Long. “There’s a lot of stimulation.” (Cate Terwilliger | Special to The Denver Post)

calm came over both of them. And I looked at Gretchen and said, ‘That’s what this is all about.’”

Both women say Spout has the sensitivity of a natural healer, and that he seeks out certain people.   “It’s not always a patient,” Long says.  “A lot of times it’s somebody in the hallway, or someone who’s waiting for a loved one in surgery.  I try to just let him do that.  A couple of times [he has sought out] people lying in bed, too. That must look strange; a horse wouldn’t normally see somebody lying horizontally. But he walks right up to people in bed, like he knows.”

Sprout and Long made their first visit to Memorial in October 2010.  He’s one of 51 miniature horses nationwide registered by Pet Partners, a Washington-based nonprofit that trains volunteers and their animals to provide pet therapy in a variety of settings.  While dogs are common in pet-therapy programs like Memorial’s, the hospital environment is particularly challenging to the temperament of horses.  That helps explain why Sprout is the only one of four miniature therapy horses in Colorado working in a hospital, though Long hopes to soon register another, 2-year-old Petey.  

“Horses by nature are spooky animals, but miniatures just seem to tolerate everything much more,” Long says.  “Sprout is amazing – the way he goes on the elevator, into people’s rooms, the way he spins around in little tiny areas.  He doesn’t get claustrophobic the way a normal horse would; he doesn’t react to things moving on the side of him like a normal horse would.

“Most horses would get pretty squirrelly if you had a whole group of kids run up and surround them, but Sprout just stands there, like ‘No big deal.’”

Hygiene is another concern. While therapy horses in other settings can typically get by with a  “bum bag”  for manure, the associated bacteria just aren’t acceptable in a sanitized hospital setting, Frasier said.  That hasn’t been a problem for Sprout, who lived for a time in the backyard of a woman who allowed him access to her home; Long says the experience helped him learn the difference between inside and out.  And if nature calls in the middle of a hospital visit, Sprout lets Long know by pawing the floor; then, it’s out to the playground for a short break, followed by another hour or so of spreading horse happiness.

“It’s such a great little job for him, and I think he enjoys it,” Long says. “But it is stressful; there’s a lot of stimulation. So an hour and a half or two hours – that’s plenty.”

It’s plenty in another way for Long,  who often doesn’t fully appreciate the emotional impact of their visits until Sprout is back at the barn.  

“I always walk away  – sometimes it’s not immediate, but a day or two afterward – and that’s when it really hits me:  I think about the reaction of somebody, or who he touched,”  she says. “And I always feel that both he and I get a lot out of it.”

Former Denver Post staff writer Cate Terwilliger teaches multimedia journalism at Northern Michigan University in the Upper Peninsula.

Copyright 2012 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.

Sprout (center) gives owner Gretchen Long a little loving. Long hopes her 2-year-old, Petey (right), will follow in Sprout’s hoofprints as a miniature therapy horse. (Cate Terwilliger | Special to The Denver Post)

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