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Miniature therapy horse provides big lift for seniors

September 22, 2018

BEAVER, W.Va. (AP) — A “97-year-old Princess” from Hinton visited The Villages at Greystone recently, trotting down an aisle of admirers, showing off her pink shoes and hair bows.

Residents of the senior living community in Beaver gathered in anticipation, cooing as “Princess the Sunshine Maker” — she’s actually just 27, but closer to a centenarian in “horse years” — tossed her mane and tail and then stopped to accept admiring pats and strokes.

Princess, a miniature horse, traveled to Greystone from Rio’s Place, a mountaintop farm in Hinton that is home to the nonprofit Beyond Wishes, a group that teaches horsemanship to special education students. Volunteers also bring Princess, a therapy horse, to Greystone twice each summer so she can visit residents.

“It’s really a highlight,” Greystone spokeswoman Betsy Cole said. “There’s just a joy for our residents. It brings back memories for them.

“She is such a docile animal, it’s easy for them to pet her and they just really look forward to the visits.”

Princess took a bow inside the Inn at Greystone — the residential gathering place — lowering her head and bending her front legs to the ground as her audience clapped and cooed.

“She’s old!” one resident quipped, laughing about Princess’s “horse” age.

“She’s like us!” called another.

“Don’t let her fall!” a male resident called, as Princess bowed.

Margaret Wheeler, a resident of almost eight months, praised the little horse.

“She’s sweet,” she said. “She’s pretty. She’s gentle, and I think she does really well around people.

“She’s sweet as she can be.”

After the initial stop, Princess began a tour through Greystone to call upon those who couldn’t make it to the Inn, trotting happily, tossing her mane and swooshing her tail as staff and residents stopped to admire her.

“They try to make sure that Princess visits every single one who wants a visit,” Cole said. “There are residents in rooms that we know they would enjoy this.”

Windle McQuaig, executive director of the Beyond Wishes Therapeutic Riding Program, said his nonprofit agency has been taking Princess around to senior living facilities and schools for eight years. The mission of the Summers County nonprofit, operated by McQuaig, his wife Toni and his daughter Mareelyn, is to make a difference in the lives of individuals who have special needs.

The idea for Beyond Wishes was born after the family donated its retired horse, Hannah, to Storm Harbor Equestrian Center in Pennsylvania. Mareelyn went to visit Hannah and was impressed by the way a horse can impact those with special needs.

“She wanted to go do a different way of education — not conventional,” McQuaig explained. “She’s always had horses in her blood. Her mom had horses in her blood.

“My daughter went up there and volunteered at that center and sort of fell in love with what they were doing there and came back and said, ‘I want to do something like that here.’”

So the McQuaigs decided to get behind Mareelyn’s vision. Toni — a long-time certified horsemaster, with experience organizing clubs and groups — is the program director and head instructor, while McQuaig serves as the executive director.

They are certified members of Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) and now work as a family assisting other families through Beyond Wishes, one of only 800 PATH centers worldwide.

Since 2011, Beyond Wishes has promoted Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT), which provides many benefits, including social, cognitive, physical and mental, for students with special needs. The program is open to children 5 years and up “and up, and up,” McQuaig joked.

“We call Princess our’ Little Sunshine Maker,’” he said, explaining her name. “We bring a little sunshine into their lives, just for a couple of hours.

“They look foward to it every year.”

He said the program doesn’t just benefit those Beyond Wishes serves.

“We enjoy doing this,” he added. “We retired a few years back and figured we might as well do something to give back to the community.”


Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com

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