Nursing homes and miniature horses?

Thunder Pants, the mini horse, visits a senior care facility.
By: Jack L. Stephens DVM
Pets Best Insurance President

I must admit I was more than skeptical when my wife proposed taking one of her miniature horses to the local senior care facility she visits regularly with our therapy dogs.

Working in the pet insurance industry and having worked with animals for years before that, my wife and I know the importance of the animal-human bond. And we love to share our service animals with as many people as possible.

Although the mini horses were a huge hit at a local elementary school’s first and second grade reading classes, I was hesitant to see how the senior residents might react to a tiny horse. At the school, true miracles happened as children that could not read publicly; in an instant could read flawlessly when the horse was looking over their shoulder. They were also popular with the special education high school students. But the senior care facility had fragile, bed ridden and wheelchair patients!

She insisted that “Thunder Pants” was so gentle, stoic and calm that he would be great. After calling to be sure our liability policy was in force and that the staff was up for it, off she went to the facility. I’m seldom effective in restraining her enthusiasm when it comes to sharing the value of therapy pets.

When she got there, residents were already waiting at the door to see the mini horse. Senior residents were lined up and wheelchairs lined the lobby in anticipation of Thunder Pants’ arrival. Immediately, everyone flocked to him. Each resident wanted to touch and rub him. Everyone, including the staff, wanted their photo taken with him.

When Thunder Pants reached over and kissed Vicki, everyone burst into laughter and applause. He whinnied at the resident cockatiels and again everyone applauded. What was supposed to be a very brief trial visit ended up lasting over an hour. After the visit, some of the residents even walked Thunder Pants to the lobby to say their goodbyes.

Whoever says dogs are the only good therapy pets has likely never encountered a mini horse like Thunder Pants. But one thing is for sure, the tiny horse was a hit and a blessing for the residents and staff. Thunder Pants’ visit was a welcome pleasure for bedridden residents.

As my wife drove home, she called me crying. She was crying for the joy she felt in bringing enjoyment to those at the senior care facility and for sharing the wonderful magic of the human-animal bond. Schotzie, our wheelchair bound Daschund, still holds the inspirational title but he now has a competitor for most entertaining therapy pet.


  • Linda Goetz

    How did you train your mini to be comfortable with all the different locations? I would love to to do this …and think it brings such joy to those who could use a litte furry joy in their lives.

    thank you

  • hrush

    Hi Linda,

    Thank you for your post.

    Here is an answer to your questions per Vicki Stephens, Dr. Jack Stephens’ wife:

    Our therapy horses are chosen for their exceptional temperament, intelligence and desire to spend time with people of all ages, especially children.

    When my husband works in the open area around our barn, it wouldn’t be unusual to see a new foal or yearling following him from one spot to another. That’s one of the first and most important signs of a good therapy horse.

    Although most all of our therapy horses are 30 inches and under, there are some in our program that are 32 inches tall. Each horse needs to meet our physical requirements, and not all are show quality. Temperament is more important to us than the physical appearance of the horse.

    The imprinting process of our horses begins at birth. We have a halter on each new foal by the time they are 2 weeks old. This is the perfect time to handle the foal’s ears, legs, feet, tail and start introducing it to the new surroundings.

    The training starts out at a very young age also. This is a long process. First, we teach them to walk calmly on a lead rope, walking calmly over different surfaces, in and out of doorways, stairs, elevators, around wheel chairs, and walkers. Teaching the command “back up” is important along with learning to ignore sudden movements or loud sounds. We use our grandchildren and friends who come for visits to help in introducing the heavy clumsy petting.

    A horse can move through all the levels of training and still not make it as a “therapy horse” because they just don’t enjoy the experience. You’ll need to learn to recognize the signs of stress in your horse and know when their visit is over.

    Take your time and be patient when training and working with your horse. The more time you spend together, the better the horse becomes and the more willing he will be to please you. I wouldn’t want to work for free, so I always reward with a good treat after the training is over.

    Horses love learning new tricks. The time you take introducing fun games is time well spent building that special bond. And a bond like this is what helps to make a wonderful “therapy horse” that everyone will love and enjoy.

  • Israel

    Hi Jack,

    I was going through this story and fell in love and glad on your passion of sharing your pets to elderlies in the Nursing facility. I am an activity director in the chicago area, as assume that you guys are from Illinois, but I don’t have idea how far you are from our facility. I am interested to know of the possibility if you could drop by and have our residents spend few minutes with Thunder Pants. I will look forward to your response. Thanks!


    • hrush

      Hi Israel,

      Thank you for your comment. I have passed it along to Dr. Jack Stephens. He should be in touch with you soon.

      Kind regards,
      Pets Best Insurance

  • We would like a quote for liability insurance for a miniature horse brought to a birthday party at someone’s house. The horse is approx 26 inches tall, no riders. We will have a corral for the horse that is 40″ tall. The horse will be exposed to children during activities under full supervision. He is a trained therapy horse that has been used in nursing home setting and schools. What type of coverage would you recommend? We live in Florida. We certainly Appreciate your input.
    Thank you for your time,
    Nita Bernier-Cirioni

    • Hi Nita, thanks for your comment. Pets Best Insurance offers pet health insurance for dogs and cats. For horse liability insurance, we recommend you check with your horse’s veterinarian, or ask other horse owners who they recommend.


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