The shaggy Shetland stands calmy in the center of the room at an elderly care facility, her hind leg cocked in restful contentment as wizened hands lovingly scratch her thick mane and run down her short, furry back. Here, the small Paint pony is far more than a petting zoo attraction; she’s a reminder of the past, a reason for these seniors—many with early-onset dementia—to fondly recount rural childhoods spent with horses. As hands pet, eyes brighten with the remembrance of equines from long ago. Some of the participants are moved to share their memories, speaking more in one day than they have in weeks. The pony’s presence often represents a beacon of clarity through murky memories.
At only 11 hands high, Shetland ponies Feather and ChaChi are the most diminutive equines in the therapy horse herd at Children, Horses and Adults in PartnerShip (CHAPS), a Wyoming-based nonprofit dedicated to helping people learn, grow and heal through equine-assisted activities and therapies. Though small, they make a large impact on the community as the ambassadors of CHAPS’ equine-assisted learning programs.
Equine-assisted learning is a type of experiential learning technique that promotes life skills through interaction with horses—no riding required. Working with non-verbal animals provides opportunities for participants to develop trust, respect, honesty, confidence and communication. Kristen Marcus, the executive director of CHAPS, lauds the approach’s adaptability. She says, “Riding is awesome, but there’s a finite number of things you can do on your horse. Equine-assisted learning, on the other hand, can work for people of all ages and abilities. We focus on skills such as socialization, verbalization, memory, recall and motor skills—and no one needs to be mounted to benefit from the programs.”
Senior citizens aren’t the only ones that benefit from visits with these kind-hearted ponies. Feather and ChaChi are also frequent visitors to an integrated Pre-K classroom where half the children have emotional, cognitive or physical disabilities. These challenges can mean short attention spans, but when the ponies walk through the door, the students are rapt, drawn by the novelty of having a horse in the classroom. The Shetlands then become whatever the children need them to be that day. Depending on the day’s lesson, that could include being dinosaurs, math boards, pizzas or French picnics—all of which the ponies have been, and more. The possibilities are limited only by imagination and craft supplies.
Marcus recounts the time Feather and ChaChi helped teach an anatomy lesson in which children learned body parts by sticking felt bones to the blanket-clad ponies. “The kids loved it,” she says. “Everyone was smiling. With the ponies, everyone is always smiling.”
Veterans, too, open up at the sight of the two Shetlands. Feather and ChaChi work with veterans who have traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and physical disabilities. Mental health professionals can come with a stigma, however unfairly, explains Marcus, and working with a therapist causes some people to believe they’re broken and in need of fixing. It’s a mindset that can cause veterans to shut down and become defensive. The ponies, however, don’t come with that stigma.
“The veterans can have a lot of anxiety and be pretty guarded,” says Marcus. “But no one is immune to the ponies. When they walk through the door, there’s an immediate change in the room. Faces soften, and everyone just want to pet the ponies. These two are just so calm and welcoming. People are less guarded and more vulnerable around them.”
Feather and Chachi are able to turn every room they enter into a place of peace, learning and joy—an irreplaceable gift, says Marcus. The Shetlands do life-changing work; work that’s difficult to perform if they aren’t feeling their best. To support Feather and Chachi in their mission of helping everyone they meet, CHAPS employs a specialized horsekeeping program created for optimal equine health. A critical part of the program is providing every horse in CHAPS’ therapy horse herd with Cosequin® Joint Health Supplements, which provides the broad-spectrum joint support that helps keep the horses going strong.
“We put everyone, no matter their age, on Cosequin®,” says Marcus. “The joints are what makes bodies function. If the horses don’t have well lubricated and comfortable joints, they just don’t want to move.”
Keeping the ponies happy and healthy is critical so they can continue to give 110 percent in their important work of positively engaging everyone they meet—from children to seniors and everyone in between.
“These ponies do so much for so many people, so we want to take care of those joints,” says Marcus. “They’re pretty special ponies and it’s a pretty special program. So many can benefit from equine-assisted learning. The more it’s utilized, the greater the quality of life in each community is going to be.”
Article sponsored by: Nutramax Laboratories Veterinary Sciences, Inc., makers of Cosequin®.