The therapists from the A and B Ranch might be small in size, but the miniature horses can have a big impact on those they visit.
Ranch owner and horse trainer Bonnie Prestegard has been training her own and other miniature horses and their owners to bring a bit of joy to residents of health care facilities and group homes.
Prestegard believes the smart and sociable minis offer those struggling with health concerns a “kind of living medicine.”
The daughter of a resident of a senior care facility that Prestegard and her minis visited told the trainer she hadn’t seen her father smile in a very long time. But after the visit from the mini equine therapist, the resident smiled long into the evening.
Prestegard has been doing the equine-assisted therapy since she bought Billy the Kid, her first miniature horse, in 2011.
“His big brown eyes and pleasant personality captured my heart,” Prestegard said. “I began to train him and found him to be extremely intelligent. I dressed him in costumes and people got such a joy with him I decided to bring him to a nursing home in Pine Island.”
That visit to the care center with Billy left an impression on Prestegard.
“I saw how their (residents’) eyes lighten up and the atmosphere of depression disappeared and filled in with laughter and joy,” Prestegard said.
However, to be effective, the equine therapists do need to be educated. At her ranch near Pine Island, Minn., Prestegard trains the horses in the various skills needed to visit health care facilities and group homes and take part in community events such as parades.
“There’s more to it than just taking a cute little horse into a building for petting,” Prestegard said. “There is much training, and it is a process in them developing into a great and sensitive therapy horse.”
In the 12-week course, the horses’ handlers learn to communicate with their animals.
“Humans have to learn the language of the horse,” she said.
The lessons the horse and handler learn include crossing urban streets, parade etiquette, giving kisses, twirling and ground driving. The horses are taught to enter buildings, walk along hallways, ride in elevators and approach people in wheelchairs. They’re also taught good behavior, especially in the area of “potty training.”
“I train the horse and then train the handler how to handle their horse,” Prestegard said. “In this program the horse will have all his basic and advance ground work done. They will learn all the things they need to do to have a safe therapy visit.”
Other lessons include pedestal work. Prestegard believes training horses to stand on raised platforms improves the horse’s skill and mental cleverness, and the horse pays attention to both sets of feet and their entire physical body.
“Quiet feet on the pedestal equals quiet mind and focus on the handler,” she said. “They learn to climb stairs, stand for long periods of time, handle obstacle courses, do downtown walk-arounds and meet a lot of people to learn to handle pressure.”
Before graduating from the basic program, the horse trainee will go on two therapy visits. When the horse completes the training, its owner will receive a certificate of achievement listing all the tasks accomplished.
Prestegard will do private lessons where the horse owner brings his or her animal to the ranch once a week. However, such lessons tend to take longer as the handler and horse need to learn together.
“I teach a task,” she said. “Then they go home with the homework to complete and then come back to be coached and add a new task as we build the horse and handler as a team.”
She limits the number of horses and handlers accepted into the program because of the need to spend a lot of time to ensure the therapy teams will succeed.
“I do want this to be successful for the handler and horse,” Prestegard said. “This (training) is not about money but a mission to reach the community with these amazing therapists and give my handlers and horse the confidence and know how. Plus, I am available to them for any questions to keep them solid and good.”
She’s working to put the training sessions online for handlers who live too far away but want to learn how to train their horses as therapy animals.
In addition to, her stallion, Billy, Prestegard now owns minis Gracie, Lilly and Pearl. All are less than 34 inches in height.
To be registered as a mini, mature animals need to be shorter than 38 inches tall. There are two different miniature horse registries, Class A and Class B. Minis 34 inches tall and under are registered as Class A; minis 34 to 38 inches tall are registered as Class B. Prestegard only works with Class A minis.
“When looking for a miniature horse for therapy, generally speaking, smaller is better,” Prestegard said. “This is because they can move much easier in rooms and confined spaces.”
The equines were developed through the breeding of ponies with horses. While some exhibit pony characteristics, many breeders tend to prefer horse qualities over pony characteristics.
In addition to programs such as Prestegard’s, miniature horses have been owned and used as companion animals and as guide animals for the sight-impaired.
More information about Prestegard’s mini horse therapy training program can be found at www.abranch.net.