Mercy Home recently enjoyed a visit from some four-legged friends—mini therapy horses Turnabout and Mystery from Soul Harbour Ranch!

Our kids and coworkers, along with Friends First mentors and mentees, were invited to spend an hour on a Saturday morning petting, brushing, and playing with the horses. The visit was arranged by our Clinical Director Emily Neal, who noted that the benefits of animal-assisted therapy are well-documented in trauma research literature. The practice reduces symptoms for those suffering from the effects of adverse life experiences.

“While the mini horses visit only a couple times per year, they provide youth with opportunities to build confidence by leading them around the soccer field, [to] experience a soothing effect by petting, brushing, and braiding their hair and manes, and spark a general feeling of joy while connecting with these unique little animals,” she said.

The boys and girls who spent time with the horses certainly agreed with that assessment!

“Our program created the mission of enriching lives while promoting the healing benefits of the human-animal bond while advocating for the highest animal therapy standards possible,”

“It was fun,” one of our young women said. “The mini horses were so adorable! This was my first time seeing a mini horse—it was a great experience.”

Wallace in Speh Home also said he’d never seen horses before and called the experience “good.”

“They were pretty cool,” Alex, also of Speh Home, said. “[It was cool] that they had little shoes.”

The girls in Walgreen Home came to the consensus that that horses were adorable.

“They were so cute and sweet!” Indya said.

Soul Harbour Ranch, who provides the visits from the mini horses free of charge, is a non-profit that was started in 2018, though its roots go much further back.

Jodie Diegel, the founder and president, had a longtime dream of helping others through animal-assisted therapy. In 2010, she got a golden retriever, Buffett, and started him in obedience classes as a puppy. He progressed through these classes and was accepted into the animal-assisted therapy program at Northwest Community Hospital in 2011. Jodie’s other dog, Dudley, joined that program as well.

In late 2011, Jodie saw an ad for miniature therapy horses and made a goal to start a nonprofit where she could train horses, bring on volunteers, and visit those in need. She founded another organization with three miniature therapy horses and brought on volunteers. For six years, she was the president of this organization and went on many visits around Chicagoland to places like hospitals, nursing homes, homes for the disabled and at-risk youth, and domestic violence shelters.

In 2018, with seven mini horses at her property in Barrington, Ill., Soul (Sharing of Unconditional Love) Harbour Ranch was born.

“Our program created the mission of enriching lives while promoting the healing benefits of the human-animal bond while advocating for the highest animal therapy standards possible,” she said.

Soul Harbour currently has 16 registered handlers, most of whom are registered with numerous animals. In addition to the seven mini horses it began with, she has added two more mini horses, four miniature therapy donkeys who are currently in training, along with Buffett and Dudley.

In 2018, Soul Harbour had over 80 visits and started the SOUL Buddies Animal Therapy Program at Barrington High School, where they help students become registered handlers with the animals and then go on visits in the community.

“Consistency, patience, kindness, and love from the handlers give our animals confidence to handle new situations,”

So what does it take to train mini horses?

“Training mini therapy horses is very similar to obedience training with dogs,” Jodie said.

Trainers at Soul Harbour use commands like walk, whoa, stay, stand, back, and visit. Some even know the command to kiss!

“Consistency, patience, kindness, and love from the handlers give our animals confidence to handle new situations,” she said.

The animals are also desensitized to things like wheelchairs, walkers, loud voices and music, and tarps so they aren’t startled during visits. They also practice using elevators.

When the therapy animals are off, they enjoy just being animals!

“The dogs lounge and play in the house and yard,” Jodie explained. “Our mini therapy horses and mini donkeys also mingle together on our five acres. There are also two big horses [on the property].”

One thing our kids notice right away about the mini horses is that they are wearing sneakers on their visits to our Home! Soul Harbour is sponsored by Teddy Mountain, who make sneakers for teddy bears. They happen to fit the mini horses perfectly, and the larger mini horses have boots from Cavallo. In addition to being cute, these sneakers and boots prevent the horses’ hooves from slipping on indoor flooring and act as a sanitary barrier.

The visits from the Soul Harbour mini horses are a special tradition at Mercy Home, and we are grateful to Jodie and Soul Harbour Ranch for their friendship to our kids!

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