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The benefits from a bit of horse therapy


By Sheree Hoddinett

It’s smiles all round when Merrill Winnell and her trusty four-legged sidekick Faith drop by Bolton Clarke’s Fernhill residential aged care community in Caboolture. The regular visits to the community have become quite a favourite amongst residents who enjoy their chance to ‘horse around’ with Faith, who in turn is rewarded with plenty of pats, cuddles, kisses and of course the all-important carrots. What originated as an idea to lift the spirits of residents who were struggling with the impact of Covid is growing with potential and Merrill hopes to visit other care facilities within the region and beyond.

On your average normal day, Faith grazes the Elimbah paddock she calls home. A gentle giant without a worry in the world (except maybe her paddock companion Mac, especially when it comes to food) Faith is a joy to owner Merrill, who couldn’t imagine her life without horses in it.

“I never actually owned my own horse until I was 34,” Merrill said with a laugh. “When I was growing up we had four acres but my parents weren’t horsey at all. I learnt to ride on a Shetland Pony out in the bush, no bridle or saddle, just bareback and held on to the hair. I fell off and got hurt a lot but it was worth it! I never rode in a saddle until I was about 21.”

Faith came into Merrill’s life a few years ago after she got her from a friend who needed to give her a new home. Merrill happily took her in and has spent time giving her love and affection and the opportunity to get used to being around humans. It was Merrill’s neighbour Kaylene, who is actually a nurse at Fernhill, who first prompted the idea to bring Faith for a visit.

“I had given it a bit of thought a few times but never pursued it,” Merrill said. “Then Faith was starting to mellow a bit more and I asked Kaylene what she thought about the idea and before I knew it, I was on my way to meet Nick and discuss our next move.”

Bolton Clarke Fernhill Lifestyle Coordinator Nick Neumann said the visits from Merrill and Faith brought many memories, smiles and joy to those who called the community home.

“We have lots of residents here who have very fond memories of their own horses or other animals and seeing the smiles that light up their faces is just incredible. It improves both their physical and mental health,” he said. “The therapy horses often offer familiar reminders to residents of their past experiences with horses including time spent training them in the paddock or on the farm, particularly in an area like Caboolture which has such a rural heritage. She is definitely a one in a million horse, not a lot fazes her. She isn't worried about the wheelchairs, walking frames and even sometimes a resident who is bed bound. She just takes it all in her stride.”

Merrill already has so many photos capturing the joy of the residents as they get to enjoy their experience with Faith.

“The looks on their faces, if they could get lipstick on their ears, they would have,” Merrill said of the reactions to Faith. “The smiles were amazing. Some of them couldn’t believe they were looking at a real live horse. There are some who had never seen a real live horse or even touched one.

It is so heartfelt and fascinating listening to their stories from when they were younger, how they used to use their horses to plough paddocks. The ones that grow up around horses and are horsey people will stand there and smell her saying they love the smell and won’t wash their hands. I’ve been there four or five times now. There’s one lady that comes down as soon as I turn up and stays until I leave. She hugs Faith and sings to her, kisses her and pats her, just to see the joy and happiness on all their faces, it’s so worth it.”

From residents who are non-verbal to those who used to only watch from their room balcony, Merrill has seen the changes and loves the idea that she can help make a difference in their lives.

“It just fills me to overflowing with happiness to see them happy. It’s only for a couple of minutes each time, but it makes a difference,” she says. “There’s a few of them that like to have a chat and I love talking to them. So many of them don’t have much happening for them, they spend a lot of time inside and don’t get many visitors. Just the looks on their faces as they make their way towards Faith, it’s priceless. I can’t put it into words and photos really don’t do it justice. Their faces just explode.”

Faith’s gentle nature means she isn’t bothered by the extra attention from residents, those who have walkers or even those who are wheeled down in their beds.

“She happily stands there and takes all the attention and the carrots too of course,” Merrill says. “She’s not an overly affectionate horse, so she won’t cuddle back or anything but she’s definitely not worried about the attention she’s getting.”

Moving forward Merrill hopes to continue these visits and is even looking into taking the visits further afield.

“Knowing how well this has been working at one spot, I’d really like to take it to other homes if I can,” she says.

If you would like to know more, please reach out to Merrill via email mandmwinnell@bigpond.com

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