Tiny Horses Make Big a Difference at Virginia Mason

Baxter, Domi and Streaker might be miniature horses, but they’re just like any other member of Virginia Mason’s care team. They go through special training before they meet patients. They take extra precautions for hygiene, like washing up and wearing special shoes. And they make a huge impact on patients’ lives.

“Patients who are in the hospital for a long time often feel lonely and anxious, but the mini horses help them forget all about that,” says Chelsea Sandlin, director of Virginia Mason’s volunteer and ancillary services. “They are so attuned with what people need: Sometimes they’re playful when patients need a laugh, other times, when a patient is feeling down, they’ll just put their head in the patient’s lap and cuddle.”

Brian Hohstadt, who runs the Triple B Foundation for Pet Therapy, started bringing these mini horses to Virginia Mason in fall of 2018. He comes to our downtown hospital every other week, visiting patients with one of three horses that are each just over two feet tall.

Amy Morgan, director of acute services, says the horses’ ability to ease patients’ minds can have a big effect on their healing: She shared an anecdote of a patient who was recovering from spinal surgery. His care team kept trying to get him to sit up and move, but he said he was in too much pain — until one of the horses came into his room.

“He sat right up to see the horse, and was engaged in therapy for the rest of the day,” Amy says. “He said that in that moment, he was able to take his mind off the pain and focus on something else — and that made him realize he could do it. It was really powerful.”

Most days, Brian and the horses visit inpatients who pet and play with them. They also help boost the morale of Virginia Mason staff — like during one memorable meeting when staff enjoyed root beer floats and a visit from Baxter. All three animals are specially certified to come to hospitals and can even wait to go to the bathroom until they’re told.

“Brian is an incredible partner,” Amy says. “He puts so much time into training these horses, and he’ll stay for as long as he needs to, making sure everyone who wants to interact with the horses gets the chance.”

This program wouldn’t be possible without our donors, whose generous gifts fund patient services like this one.

“These horses have a magical effect: They walk into hospital rooms and instantly make people feel better,” Chelsea says. “The program has an invaluable impact and we’re so grateful for the donors who support it.”

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