Two years ago, we introduced you to an unusual group of therapy animals: the miniature horses of the nonprofit Mane in Heaven. Ordinarily, the group makes about 100 in-person visits every year to hospitals, senior homes, and people with disabilities. But as things have shifted to Zoom calls and social distancing, Mane in Heaven’s found a way to meet its mission and the moment.
Since coronavirus restrictions went into place in March, “I joke that the horses are working from home now just like everybody else!” said Mane in Heaven President Dina Morgan.
Morgan says a lot of the folks they usually visit, like seniors and people with disabilities, can already feel isolated even without a pandemic. So, Morgan and the team of volunteers started a mail program; mini mail, of course.
“We send them to nursing homes, people in need, people who need that little uplifting, and the response we’ve gotten has been unbelievable,” Morgan said. “Even though Spirit or Tinkerbell can’t be there in person, at least they get a card that uplifts them.”
They’re also doing a reading program, sending care packages to people they might usually see in person, and doing virtual visits.
“When we first started we first did a couple Zooms and a virtual visit, we thought, is this going to work? Because touching the horse and hugging the horse has always been such a big part of our program. But we found that connection is still there,” Morgan said.
Mane in Heaven’s also put safety measures into place to keep volunteers and barn staff safe, including temperature checks, screening questions, and masks.
While in-person visits are a lot tougher these days, the fact that they can do virtual visits means the minis get to connect with people from all across the country.
“Fourth of July weekend we did a visit with a little girl in Atlanta, and she’s a cancer survivor,” Morgan said. “She usually goes to camp and rides horses. … It was phenomenal. Her aunt said to me afterwards, that was the best part of the Fourth of July weekend.”
They’ve also managed to start doing some in-person visits, with safety precautions in place.
“We had families that we normally visit from Shriners, Make-a-Wish, (and) Misericordia come out,” said Mane in Heaven’s Danielle McCready. “They each had their own individual time to visit with the horses. … They had a half an hour slot and I know wanted to stay all day.”
Mane in Heaven hopes to keep offering in-person visits monthly.
“As long as we can do it safely, we want people to have the experience to be out together as a family (and) love on our horses,” McCready said.
Mane in Heaven doesn’t charge for its visits, but it is supported by donations to keep up its work.
“Our mission is to connect people with miniature horses to promote empathy, kindness, and overall well-being,” Morgan said. “People are stressed, there’s anxiety, and I think being able to do these virtual visits helps, it helps that emotional health.”
Answers to a few common questions about the minis: yes, they’re fully grown. No, they’re not ponies or horses that have been shrunk down. And the shoes they wear are for infection control in medical settings, to keep them from slipping on the floor – and also because they look pretty cute.