Health & Medicine

Miniature horse joins therapy dogs and cats comforting patients at Sutter hospitals

Hope couldn’t make it past the front doors of Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento without causing a commotion.

Tuesday was the first day of work for the miniature horse. She’s the latest addition to Paws on Call, a volunteer group of therapy animals and their owners who visit patients in Sutter hospitals. The organization consists of 30 dogs, one cat – and Hope.

Dozens of patients, visitors, nurses and physicians filled the neuroscience floor hallways Tuesday at the midtown center to welcome Hope.

The 3-year-old brown-and-white 100-pound minihorse is the height of a Labrador retriever. She wears bows in her braided mane, booties to shield her slippery hooves and a green vest adorned with the embroidered words “Sutter’s Hooves On-Call.”

Hope had a couple of trial runs through the hospital in June so she could settle into her environment, said Gary Zavoral, spokesman for the Sutter Health Sacramento Sierra Region.

Hope’s owner, Lisa Schaeffer of Elk Grove, trained the minihorse for a year before she joined Sutter’s Paws on Call. Hope was housebroken, conquered her fear of elevators, perfected walking with a harness, learned how to handle socializing and mastered the art of the camera-ready pose.

During her training, Hope met her first patient, Samantha Leigon, 19, of Auburn who was hospitalized for back surgery in early June.

Leigon saw Hope in the hallway when she was switching rooms, she said. As she stopped in the middle of the hall, a crowd surrounded her and the horse to take pictures and pet the minihorse.

“When they were pushing me out and I saw her, the pain kind of just dissipated and went away,” Leigon said. “She puts people at ease.”

Hope and Leigon reunited Tuesday at the hospital, and the minimare seemed to remember the former patient.

“She came right in and started kissing my face and nuzzling,” Leigon said. “You feel so much love from an animal that doesn’t even know you. They just sense that you’re in pain and want to make you feel better.”

Sammye Valentine of Roseville, who was hospitalized for back surgery, was supposed to be discharged from the hospital Tuesday morning, but wanted to stick around to see the promised minihorse, said Dan Douglas, her son-in-law.

“She told the doctor ‘I’ll leave as soon as the pony gets here,’ ” Douglas said.

The volunteers and their therapy pets strive to relieve patients’ stress, said Kathy Montgomery, Paws on Call pets therapy coordinator for Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento.

“It brings a lightness into the hospital room,” Montgomery said. “We are simply there to alleviate some of that stress and take their mind off of the hospitalization. Some patients say it’s like bringing a little bit of the outside in.”

The therapy animals are a hit at the hospital, said Dr. Lisa Guirguis, a breast cancer surgeon who supports Paws on Call’s mission. Kippy, her King Charles spaniel, is a therapy dog who visits patients frequently.

Patients often ask her to write a prescription for a one-hour pet therapy session, she said. Guirguis has seen how the animals can benefit the patients’ health.

“When we bring pets in, what we noticed is that instantaneous resolve in some of the problems that we have. Their chronic problems seem to get better,” Guirguis said. “Heart rate goes down, blood pressure goes down, respiratory rate isn’t as rapid and fast. It’s a true health benefit – you really see a lot of amazing things happen.”

Schaeffer, who has trained horses for 35 years, adopted Hope with the intention of her being a therapy horse, she said. Together Hope, Schaeffer and her husband, Ken, are the Comfort Team.

“This is what we were called to do,” Schaeffer said. “I can’t even begin to explain how wonderful it is. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

The Comfort Team also visits assisted living facilities and special-needs children at her church, First Baptist in Elk Grove, she said. When Hope isn’t visiting patients, the elderly or children, she frolics in her paddock that is 50 feet by 50 feet or relaxes in her stall that is 12 feet by 24 feet, where Christian music plays all day.

Although most horses travel by trailer, Hope commutes place-to-place in the back of Schaeffer’s SUV, where she rides around with her head sticking out, Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer hopes that her minihorse provides comfort and happiness to patients and people in need, she said. Her aspiration to please patients has been fulfilled so far.

“Hope definitely gives patients hope,” Leigon said. “Her name is exactly what she is.”