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Equine-assisted therapy helps people in palliative care

Meet Billy, the Norwegian fjord horse!
Thursday, July 5, 2018
With Billy, the Norwegian fjord horse, at the PEI Palliative Care Centre are (left to right) Krisandra Cairns, Dr. Mary McNiven, Peter Howatt, Justine MacPherson, and Kerry McKenna.

It’s not usual to see a horse in the parking lot of the PEI Provincial Palliative Care Centre—except when Billy, the Norwegian Fjord horse, comes to visit.

Sixteen-year-old Billy is owned by Dr. Mary McNiven, professor of animal science at the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC). For over three years, she has been bringing Billy to visit patients in the Centre. He interacts with the patients who want to visit with him at their windows, in the parking lot, or in the courtyard. Because of the way the Centre is designed, they can see him from their beds, and the windows can be opened so they can talk to him and his handlers.

“Billy’s visits are a highlight for the people here—our patients, their families, and our staff,” said Centre manager Peter Howatt. “He gives patients something to focus on and takes their minds off their own situation for a period of time.”

Charlottetown resident Kerry McKenna, a 58-year-old day patient at the Centre, loves to visit with Billy. McKenna was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and has been coming to the Centre two days a week ever since.

“He [Billy] makes me feel relaxed and calm, which takes my mind off having brain cancer,” he said.

While Billy’s visits bring pleasure to palliative care patients like McKenna, the horse is also part of a related research project. Led by McNiven, who is certified in equine-assisted therapy, the project team is working to determine the effect of the therapy on patients and also on the horse involved.

“Equine-assisted therapy is more common these days, with the target groups tending to be people who have problems caused by traumatic events and PTSD,” she said. “But people in palliative care have unique worries and concerns, and we want to determine what effect this therapy has on them. In addition, it is important to consider the welfare of the horses involved in equine therapy.”

Krisandra Cairns RN, a Master of Nursing student at the University of New Brunswick, approached McNiven about doing a project on equine-assisted therapy, and she jumped at the chance. McNiven is co-supervisor of Cairns’s masters program.

Cairns is in charge of the patient side of the project. The participating patients visit with Billy at least twice and watch a video of him getting ready to come to the Centre. She interviews each patient at the end of the visits and compiles their responses to him. She also evaluates their symptoms before and after their visits with Billy, using a health assessment tool. Her findings will be included in her master’s thesis.

Looking after Billy’s side of the project is Justine Macpherson, a second-year veterinary student at AVC. She assesses the variability of Billy’s heart rate—an indication of stress—on five occasions during the day that the horse visits the Centre. Billy wears a remote heart rate monitor for at least 10 minutes in a stall before leaving the farm, while he is in the trailer on the way to and back from the Centre, during the visit itself, and for at least 10 minutes in his stall after the journey. Macpherson will present the results of her study at a research symposium at AVC in August.

And what does Billy think? Well, that’s hard to say, but standing in the parking lot after doing his rounds, he was so relaxed that he was almost asleep! McNiven said the patients get involved in Billy’s life.

“They know him; they ask about him; they even worry about him a bit,” she said. “They look forward to seeing him.”

Anna MacDonald
AVC External Relations Officer
Atlantic Veterinary College
(902) 566-6786
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