Horse pays patients a visit

By Nick Zacharias


Susan Bednarski (left), Director of Operations and Volunteer Resources at the Vaudreuil-Soulanges Palliative Care Residence in Hudson, got a visit from Rusty the rescued Belgian Draft horse and some of his adoptive family from Vaudreuil-Dorion’s A Horse Tale Rescue Tuesday, October 12 as part of a volunteer outreach program that’s bringing the joy of equine encounters to patients in palliative care.

Patients at the Vaudreuil-Soulanges Palliative Care Residence (VSPCR) in Hudson got treated to a therapeutic visit by volunteers from neighbouring A Horse Tale (AHT) rescue with an easygoing equine friend in tow this week. While staff and donors to the end-of-life care residence have made everything from massage therapy and pet therapy to hair care and therapeutic baths available to improve patient wellbeing in their final days, a visit from a massive 1,600-pound Belgian Draft horse is a first for the VSPCR.

Volunteers helping close to home

“Mike Grenier from A Horse Tale called us, and we talked about what they’d been doing at other centres, and we just set it up right away,” said Daphné Lamoureux, Director of Care and Clinical Services at VSPCR. She said it was a natural fit, and the patients and their families would seem to agree.

A Horse Tale has a track record of bringing people and horses together for therapeutic contact. While fulfilling their main purpose of providing a permanent home for horses that (for various reasons) need rescuing, they recognize the benefits of exposure to these gentle giants for humans too, and for years have been facilitating free interactions as a way of giving AHT team, they have all kinds of groups come visit them – from people on the autism spectrum or with Down syndrome, to women who’ve suffered abuse or people with PTSD. More recently, they’ve welcomed front-line healthcare workers and teachers as a way to provide a calm respite from the stresses of working under the pall of COVID-19.


VSPCR patient Roy Neal was brought outside on a spectacular fall day to be woken up by a gentle nuzzle from a large new friend.

Taking the show on the road

“With patients in palliative care,” said Grenier, “it’s kind of a case of, if the mountain can’t come to the horse, you bring the horse to the mountain. So we started to do that. We first visited another palliative care centre in Kirkland last year; it was right before Christmas and the snow had just started coming gently down, it was beautiful.”

So far Rusty, a retired Montreal calèche horse, is the only one to go on the road to visit patients with them. Said Grenier, “Obviously it’s something patients really benefit from, but of course we have to make sure the set-up is safe and calm for everyone.” Having lived a previous life surrounded by crowds of people in the Old Port of Montreal, he’s a perfect candidate and genuinely seems to enjoy the contact.

“Dad was kind of dozing in his bed, and Rusty just gave him a little nudge,” said Deborah Neal, whose father Roy Neal is in care at the residence and was brought outside in his bed on a beautiful fall morning for the visit. “He’s such a big sweetheart.”

Said Sandstrom, “Horses are very intuitive. They can hear your heartbeat. They can sense when someone is nervous or sad – they can be very comforting.”

With the positive impact they’ve had, the volunteers at A Horse Tale are eager for repeat visits to the VSPCR and other residences. They’re getting ready to give Blanco, a big white Percheron (one of 13 horses currently enjoying life at A Horse Tale and another former calèche horse) a chance to pay patients a visit in a couple of weeks – partly to give Rusty a break from being the only one to travel, and partly for the touching, beneficial moments it brings to horse and human alike.

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