Patients ‘leap out of bed’ to see P.E.I. horse who visits palliative facility

CHARLOTTETOWN — It’s not unusual for patients at a P.E.I. palliative care facility to look out their windows and see a familiar horse staring back at them.

Billy the Norwegian Fjord horse visits the Provincial Palliative Care Facility in Charlottetown every week as part of a unique equine-assisted therapy program, peering into large ground-level windows and greeting patients, their families and staff in the hospital’s green space.

“I’ve had people who have said that Billy made their husband laugh one more time. We have people who leap out of bed who come to see him,” said Dr. Mary McNiven, Billy’s owner and a professor at the Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College.

“They are living in the moment, which we all should be doing a bit more of, and if you can experience the horse and think about him and talk about his day and what he’s been up to, it’s huge for those patients… It gives them something else to think about and something else to care about.”

Equine-assisted therapy is fairly common, but not in this way, said McNiven. It’s often used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and victims of trauma.

“I’ve heard of the odd person take miniature horses in (a palliative care facility). It’s fairly unusual that someone would take a full grown horse to a facility,” said McNiven, adding that the 16-year-old horse does not actually go into the facility.

Kerry McKenna, a 58-year-old day-patient at the facility, said Billy visits are “peaceful.”

“The highlight of seeing Billy was that he made me feel relaxed and calm, which takes my mind off having brain cancer,” he said in a statement on the provincial government’s website.

Billy — who has a light grey coat and mohawk mane — has been visiting the hospital for more than three years, and has sparked a two-pronged research project that looks at how the horse’s visits affect palliative patients, and how the visits affect Billy.

Krisandra Cairns, a master of nursing student at the University of New Brunswick, is using a tool to assess the patient’s symptoms immediately following Billy’s visit. That includes pain, anxiety and depression.

She also interviews the patients to gain further insights — all as part of her masters thesis, to be presented later this year.

Meanwhile, Justine MacPherson, a second-year student in the doctor of veterinary medicine program at the Atlantic Veterinary College, logs Billy’s heart rate throughout the hospital calls — including the ride to and from the facility — and monitors his behaviour.

MacPherson is currently wrapping up that study and will present her findings at a research symposium at the Atlantic Veterinary College in August.

McNiven, who is supervising both students, said initial data indicates Billy enjoys the weekly interactions as much as the patients.

“When people come out to talk to him, we’ve noticed his heart rate drops amazingly,” she said, adding that rigorous studying of this type of therapy for palliative patients is much-needed.

“We’ve had babies that wrap their arms and legs right around his face and he’s just loving it.”

Peter Howatt, manager of the Palliative Care Centre, said excitement can be felt throughout the entire facility when Billy arrives each week.

“The visits are the highlight of the week for many… We’ve had patients that have gotten out of bed and put their face right to the window and Billy puts his nose and head right up there and they sort of bonded,” said Howatt.

But not all horses have the temperament and personality for the job, McNiven stressed.

“Billy is special in that way because he’s pretty focused on his job, rather than running around or running away or focusing on foxes or whatever,” she said.

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