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A mini horse is the newest therapy animal cheering up patients at Abington-Lansdale Hospital

Dale, a miniature horse, is the newest member of the therapy animal crew at Abington-Lansdale Hospital.

Ginny DiFerdinando, 79, of Warminster, Pa., is greeted by Dale, 14-year-old miniature therapy horse, at Abington-Lansdale Hospital on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.
Ginny DiFerdinando, 79, of Warminster, Pa., is greeted by Dale, 14-year-old miniature therapy horse, at Abington-Lansdale Hospital on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

“Is he here yet?”

“Have you seen him?”

“It’s today, right?”

The lobby of Abington-Lansdale Hospital was abuzz with anticipation of a visitor that has shot to celebrity status among patients and staff in his brief volunteering tenure.

And on a recent Tuesday, he was a little behind schedule. Call him high maintenance, but before Dale can make an entrance, he needs a bubble bath, hair styling, and his favorite shoes laced up just right.

Finally, the automatic hospital doors parted and Dale clomped toward his adoring fans.

“My gosh — a horse!” gasped an elderly woman, who instinctively reached out from her wheelchair to touch him.

Dale, a 220-pound, 36-inch-tall miniature horse, is the newest addition to Abington-Lansdale’s therapy animal program. To date, the seven-year-old program has exclusively featured dogs, brought in by volunteers. But when a longtime therapy-dog volunteer proposed bringing in her latest trainee, a horse, administrators jumped at the idea.

“We said: ‘Well, that’s super interesting. Wouldn’t that be unique?’ ” said Kathleen Farrell, the hospital’s chief administrative officer.

Therapy animals — dogs, in particular — have become increasingly common at hospitals as a way to boost moods, reduce depression and anxiety, and offer patients some distraction from their pain. Research on the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy is mixed, but as more institutions embrace the trend and the novelty of working dogs wears off, hospitals are opening their doors to more species.

A sand-colored pony named Buttercup recently started picking up shifts at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Therapy bunnies used to drop by Nemours Children’s Hospital for snuggle sessions.

“A lot of it is the presence of the animal, but in most of these cases, there can be some sort of short-term bond. Dogs are wonderful … but dogs may not be right for certain people,” said Elisabeth Van Every, an outreach coordinator for Pet Partners, a Seattle-area organization that registers therapy animals.

“With the mini horses, there’s something of a novelty element, too. No one is expecting to see a horse walk into their room,” Van Every said.

Not all pets are cut out for therapy work

Heads turned as Dale and his handler, Amy Coughlin, of Worcester, made their way down the halls of Abington-Lansdale. He waited patiently as a pair of nurses hustled around the corner to catch up.

He bowed his head as a toddler reached out to touch Dale’s coat — unusually fuzzy after a recent haircut.

Dale wasn’t always so docile.

He came to live with Coughlin after being rescued from an untenable living situation. He was scared of people and bolted when approached too quickly — then Coughlin would spend hours coaxing him back to pasture.

But with lots of training, the 14-year-old mini horse came to trust Coughlin, and she discovered he had many of the same qualities that had made her Rottweiler, Stella, a great therapy dog.

“He just blossomed into this wonderful horse,” Coughlin said. “Dale is happy to just stand there and say, ‘OK, what do you want me to do now?’ ”

There is no standardized accreditation or certification for therapy animals or species restrictions. Rather, independent organizations work with handlers to determine if their animal has the right personality to be a therapy animal and registers those that pass background checks, have clean vet records, and meet other requirements, which can vary by group.

The job is a perfect fit for mini horses with the right personality.

“Horses are herd animals," Van Every said. "It’s essential to their well-being to build bonds with those around them, and that can extend to the patients they visit with their handler.”

» READ MORE: On a Chester County farm, these horses help people heal. Soon, they’ll need a permanent home.

In addition to dogs, Pet Partners works with cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, domestic rats — “That one always surprises people,” Van Every said — mini horses, donkeys, birds (mostly parrots, but there’s been a pigeon or two), mini pigs, llamas, and alpacas.

But not all animals — even those that are affectionate toward their handlers — are cut out for therapy work, said Karen Gerth, the founder of Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services, the Lancaster-based organization where Dale is registered.

The organization carefully evaluates the behavior and temperament of each animal, including during a test visit to a nursing home.

“The one thing we really want to stress is that they’re enjoying what they’re doing. ... Having the confidence and willingness to go meet new people is key,” Gerth said.

Less than six months on the job, Dale basks in the attention he gets when meeting new people, Coughlin said.

Ginny DiFerdinando’s face lit up when Dale poked his head into her room. He didn’t bother to knock, not a problem for a guest everyone is always excited to see.

“Look at him, isn’t he pretty!” DiFerdinando cooed from her bed, where she was recovering from a hip replacement.

The 79-year-old Warminster resident offered Dale some crackers, but Coughlin declined on his behalf. He’s not allowed to eat on the job.

Instead, Dale showed off his movie-star white teeth and sidled closer to DiFerdinando’s bed so she could admire the festive red bows braided into his mane and his argyle-patterned harness.

“Is that for Christmas? It is so nice,” DiFerdinando told Dale. “Thank you for coming to see me.”

Hospitals adjust to four-legged volunteers

Of course, hospitals must take precautions before welcoming a horse into their patient rooms.

But it’s worth it, said Naimah Cann, the volunteer services coordinator at Penn Presbyterian, who recently arranged for a woman to bring her therapy horse, Buttercup, for a visit.

“Hundreds — I lie to you not — hundreds of people gathered around,” Cann said. “Just to see everyone so happy over that visit … it meant a lot.”

To prepare for Buttercup’s arrival, Cann worked with the hospital’s director of infectious disease to make sure Buttercup had all the proper vaccinations and wasn’t at risk of spreading viruses.

Since horses are not as easily housebroken as golden retrievers, Cann’s team also mapped out patient areas, noting floor covering, the appropriate cleaning supplies for each, and a quick-strike maintenance plan, in the event of a mess. Buttercup visits late morning, before she’s eaten, to reduce the likelihood of an accident.

Before heading to Abington-Lansdale, Coughlin scrubs Dale with special horse shampoo and brushes out his coat. The shiny black shoes he wears protect hospital floors from anything that may have collected in his hooves.

He wears a “bun bag,” a discreet black pouch beneath his tail, in case nature calls. When a spill happens, Abington-Lansdale staff are quick to cordon off the area and dispatch a cleaning crew.

Farrell said she wants to expand Abington-Lansdale’s therapy animal program because of the effect it has had on patients.

“So much about patient recovery is mental," she said. "Decreasing that anxiety is something pets are really good at doing.”

» READ MORE: New research is finding animals may help kids on the autism spectrum relate to other people

Animal visitors also boost morale among staff.

Before heading back to his trailer, Dale stopped by the emergency room, where a group of nurses and other employees were waiting for him.

They took turns stroking his back and taking selfies with him.

Dale shifted this way or that at Coughlin’s direction and tilted his head to the cameras. Though new to this celebrity thing, he’s learned his best angles.