EAU CLAIRE — Rose Vincent of Eau Claire and her miniature horse Jack are getting used to a warm welcome on their morning runs, even from people they don’t know.
Some drivers will roll down their car windows to yell “Hi, Jack!”
Kids will run out of their houses to greet the stocky little horse, who’s always delighted to see them, Vincent said.
“You have a funny-looking dog,” passersby have quipped to Vincent when they meet the duo on their morning outings.
Though Jack is actually a 6-year-old miniature horse, he does have something in common with his canine friends: Vincent is training him to become a therapy animal, similar to therapy dogs who visit hospitals or nursing homes.
One day Jack may work with children or even visit hospital or care facilities to socialize with patients himself.
But in the six weeks since he joined Vincent’s family, the horse has offered a helping hand to Vincent herself.
No stranger to horses, Vincent — who co-owns Offbeats Violin and Guitar Studio in downtown Eau Claire with her husband John — had her left leg paralyzed in a horse-related accident about 12 years ago.
Her long, arduous road toward walking again took about 10 years of rehabilitation, she said.
“You have to learn how to move again,” Vincent remembered. “You tell your foot to move, and it doesn’t move. It’s the most heartbreaking and terrifying thing … I’ve stayed away from horses, because I wasn’t sure if I could safely do it.”
But after getting on a horse again for the first time in 12 years this September, Vincent realized how much she missed them
A couple weeks later, Vincent met Jack, who was living with friends and was working as a children’s pony. As the kids grew too tall to ride him, Jack was spending more time alone, Vincent said.
“It’s very traumatic, being paralyzed at 27, so coming out of that and beginning to explore horses again … we met Jack at the early stages and he was just wonderful,” Vincent said. “I just fell for him.”
As Vincent began exercising and training with Jack, who’s much shorter than other horses, she was able to gain mobility in certain damaged muscles because he’s easier to mount and dismount, she said.
“He’s got a great heart for carrying people, and we thought, why keep him to myself?” Vincent said. “He’s learning to be a proper therapy horse so he can help other people too. But he’s done a lot for me already.”
Training for the future
Jack and Vincent might be a familiar sight to morning pedestrians in downtown Eau Claire.
Ever since Jack joined Vincent’s family in October, the duo bundles up every morning for a run.
Jack is a taller, stocky fellow for a mini horse — he falls into the breed’s larger classification, between 34 and 38 inches tall at the shoulder — with a gray-brown coat and a black dorsal stripe down his spine.
Despite his size, Jack has a good sense of where his body is at all times, Vincent says. It’s encouraging for his prospects as a therapy horse who could visit hospitals or nursing homes one day.
“I’ve been working on taking him really odd places, so he doesn’t get nervous anywhere,” Vincent said. “He has very good manners. He wants to please, and he hates to fail.”
But Jack loves being around children most of all, Vincent said, and he may be best-suited to working with children with physical, mental or emotional challenges.
“We put my nephew on him, and the child wasn’t balanced very well,” Vincent remembered. “Every time he lost his balance, Jack would stop dead and make sure he could settle again. He was thinking for this kid. We were so struck by that.”
For now, Jack is training for future situations by exploring the nooks and crannies of Eau Claire.
He’s learning how to walk calmly in public spaces, dealing with the sound of trains and cars and navigating downtown streets.
“He’s a really good running buddy,” Vincent noted.
Some mornings the two visit Boyd Park so Jack can learn commands and practice performing tricks.
“Some days we’ll go walk in the neighborhoods to try and meet all kinds of people,” Vincent said. “Small people, big people, dogs, cars, garbage cans, manhole covers. It’s as many things as we can find in a day.”
Jack will take the training at his own pace — but Vincent is optimistic that he’ll make great strides in the next six months to a year.
Therapy animals aren’t federally protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act, like service dogs are, and there is no universal registry in the U.S. for therapy animals.
But privately-owned therapy animals often visit hospitals, assisted living or rehabilitation facilities and even universities to socialize and comfort people.
Animal therapy can reduce pain, anxiety, stress, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems, according to Mayo Clinic.
Therapy animal hospital programs aren’t uncommon in the Chippewa Valley area, though all are geared toward dogs.
Mayo Clinic Health System hospitals in Eau Claire and Menomonie host Paws Force, a therapy dog program. As of late 2019, there were 17 dogs participating in a Marshfield Clinic Health System animal therapy program at Eau Claire, Rice Lake and Marshfield hospitals. HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire also began a therapy dog program in 2015.
Vincent encouraged people to say hello if they see her and Jack working or walking in a park or neighborhood.
She’s inspired by how much Jack has done for her in the last six weeks and hopes he’ll one day do the same for the Eau Claire community, Vincent added.
“He makes everybody grin. He’s such a little ray of sunshine,” Vincent said. “The trauma of that accident is wiped away by this tender, careful little friend of mine.”