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Therapy horses help college students, ailing children de-stress

Stephanie Yaur, a freshman at Northwestern University, pets Hope, a miniature therapy horse visiting students as a way to help them de-stress during exams. | Jenniffer Weigel for the Sun-Times

Stephanie Yaur, a freshman at Northwestern University, pets Hope, a miniature therapy horse visiting students as a way to help them de-stress during exams. | Jenniffer Weigel for the Sun-Times

On a recent visit to Northwestern University, dozens of students stood patiently waiting as if a celebrity were signing autographs.

At the front of the line, were the stars of the show: Hope and Winnie –– two miniature therapy horses looking to be hugged so they could help the students de-stress from exams.

“We got here an hour early and waited. We were so excited,” said Stephanie Yaur, a freshman who took several selfies with Hope and Winnie before getting back to her studies. “I wish they could come more often.”

This is the fourth year miniature therapy horses have made their way to the Northwestern campus during exams thanks to Mane in Heaven, a non-profit organization that provides therapy horses to people in need. Founded in 2012 and based in Barrington, President Dina Ewing Morgan said the organization has seven therapy horses that travel to area hospitals, social service agencies and even universities.  

“When we first started doing this for college kids, we wondered ‘Will it even have an effect?'” said Ewing Morgan, who is also a nurse. “We do this with special needs kids and hospital kids, and seniors, but we didn’t know if it would actually work on college kids and they love it.”

Haley Moberg-Brauer, a Northwestern faculty member, said even though she’s not taking exams, she waited in line with students to get her fix.

“On college campuses the things that are lacking are little kids and animals and so when you bring animals into a campus, especially when you’re stressed, it’s so nice,” said Moberg-Brauer. “They remind you of home and they remind you that there’s more out there than just your finals.”

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Jenniffer Weigel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Therapy animals are proven to lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, and release calming endorphins, according to Darlene Kelly, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago.  

Words can’t describe what you see when the kids realize there are horses in here,” said Kelly, who started bringing Mane in Heaven horses to her patients in 2016. “They’ll walk around and visit the kids in their rooms. If there’s a kid in the ICU who has just gotten out of surgery and not feeling good, and all of a sudden a horse comes up to them, and they smile and pet it and suddenly they’re distracted from their pain. They become a different person.”

Kelly said the miniature horses visit Shriners every other month.

“Even the act of petting produces an automatic relaxation response that can help with mood and motivation,” Kelly said. “The horses wear these cute little sneakers so their feet don’t slip on the tiles and when you see these kids walking them down the hall, it just warms your heart.”

Northwestern student Megha Ramanathan takes a picture with Winnie, a miniature horse that visited the campus to help students de-stress. | Jenniffer Weigel for the Sun-Times

Every horse is toilet-trained to avoid accidents indoors and all the volunteer staff teaches commands such as “walk,” “woah,” “visit” and “stay.”

“Today, we even had them ride the elevator,” Ewing Morgan said. “And you don’t have to be a horse person to volunteer with us. You just need to be kind, patient and want to help people.”

So until the spring exam season, Northwestern students and staff will have to get by with their miniature horse selfies.

“They’re so soft and calm and peaceful,” said Erin Libby, a Northwestern faculty member said about the horses. “This has happened for several quarters now and we always get wind of it and we always have to come over and see them because we love them. I even follow them on Instagram because it just makes me smile to be able to follow their adventures.”

Jenniffer Weigel is the directory of community relations for the Sun-Times and has a lifelong interest in wellness and related topics. She’s a frequent contributor to the Wednesday Well section.