Billy the horse brings comfort to palliative care patients

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Billy the horse brings comfort to palliative care patients

Billy the horse is no stranger to the Palliative Care Centre in Charlottetown — he's been visiting patients for three years.

He's brought to the centre once a week, stopping by patients' windows and hanging out in the courtyard and by the front door, giving people the chance to hug, pat or brush him.

The program is run by Mary McNiven, a professor of animal sciences and nutrition at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown.

'The power of horses'

"I know the power of horses and the interaction with people and horses, and I know how wonderful that can be," said McNiven, who's also a trained hospice care volunteer.

"People who are in wheelchairs and walkers are out there and able to touch him, and they can actually touch him from the windows."

The 16-year-old Norwegian fjord horse makes a big difference for patients at the centre, she said.

"It's been amazing actually and I guess the reception has been fantastic. The patients love him and their families [do too]," said McNiven. "Really, everyone gets a benefit out of it."

'Great sense of relaxation'

Kerry McKenna is one patient who spends a lot of time with Billy. The horse takes his mind off his health, he said.

"He gives me a great sense of relaxation and takes away my thoughts of brain cancer."

McKenna is always glad to see Billy arrive, he said.

"He's getting off the truck and he's just smiling. He's coming to see me."

'They really connect' 

Palliative care manager Peter Howatt said Billy's visits are the highlight of the week for some patients.

"We've had patients who have gotten right up out of bed to see him and went to the window to see him and put their face against the window and Billy had his face there. They really connected," Howatt said.

"He gives people a feeling that they care about him, which is different from being cared about, which is what happens in palliative care."

McNiven said horses are particularly suited for palliative care because they're so in tune with their surroundings. 

"They're a prey animal. In some ways they're always waiting for something to eat them, so they're very in tune with what's going on around them ... they pick up people's feelings," she said.

"If someone's in a wheelchair he'll bend his head down just so they can pet him, and he's very gentle that way."

Billy enjoys it too, results show

It's more than just therapy for patients, McNiven said.

Members of her team are conducting research during Billy's visits to determine the effects of horses on palliative care patients and how the visits affect Billy himself. 

So far, the results show Billy enjoys visiting the palliative care centre as much as his visitors, McNiven said. That's where he's most calm.

"He's definitely no working horse here — he's a little overweight."

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