Understanding horses: the healing horse
There has been a lot of buzz on the interwebs lately about a horse nicknamed “Doctor” Peyo. He is fifteen, a former dressage competitor, and he visits terminally ill cancer patients in a hospital in France. Apparently it’s her decision, her owner is just coming as an escort. He decides which patient he will see by raising a front paw at the door. Then he spends as much time as he wants with the patient.
Peyo is an imposing animal. He’s tall, as competition dressage horses often are, and he’s a stallion, with a really impressive neckline (which is one of the secondary sex characteristics of an intact male horse). It looks like one of San Marco horses, or one Baroque equestrian portrait. And yet, it is wonderfully soft.
Much of the buzz about him has focused on how unique and unusual he is and there may be something different about his brain. The articles I have seen do not seem to acknowledge that therapy horses are not particularly rare; like other therapy animals, they often visit hospitals and nursing homes. It’s not just miniature horses or ponies. A former neighbor of mine in Tucson has been doing care visits for decades with a succession of carriage horses including a few Clydesdales of the Budweiser herd. The first of these would have eclipsed Peyo. He weighed 2000 pounds of pure sweetness.
Personally, I would love to see larger studies of therapy horses around the world, to see if Peyo really is a cut above, or if he fits into a wider spectrum of horses as healers. . According to his owner / companion, Hassen Bouchakour, he started his career in dressage competitions, when he saw a spectator and wanted to spend time with him, and this person was still physically or mentally ill. Finally, Bouchakour decided to focus on the healing talents of the horse, especially in the oncology section of the Calais hospital.
Bouchakour himself is rather an exceptional person, to see the gifts of the horse and make it a mutual vocation. He does something that horse people do more and more, letting the horse decide what will be his life’s work. For Peyo, it’s helping humans at the end of their life.
Some commentators have compared Peyo to Oscar the death cat, who was keen to visit patients on the verge of death. It turned out that facility staff would see him on a patient’s bed and know that patient was ready to go. Peyo appears to have a similar knack for knowing when a human is near the end.
Conceptually, there is a big difference between a fluffy little cat and a huge towering horse. And yet, they’re both remarkably linked to the humans who need them. This ability to connect with a human, this tendency to form a bond that can last a lifetime and even death, is characteristic of horses that are socialized with humans. Horses have an aura around them, a feeling of calm and peace. There is nothing else like it.
Comments on the Guardian article about Peyo and his twitter feed has taken a direction that unfortunately happens too often on the internet. They turned negative and they piled up quickly. Commentator after commentator have complained about this horrible, terrifying and hideous beast. How dare this horrible creature invade the hospital rooms of the dying? Spare me, they said. Keep him away from me. I would literally be scared to death.
I didn’t commit, because I’m Internet years old and I don’t waste time that way. But all I could think of was, “Bless your heart, honey. he wouldn’t choose you. “
Peyo selects people who need what he has to give. For those who love horses, whatever their experience with real live equines, there is nothing more comforting than this great warm and breathable presence. Seeing this shape looming above you, feeling the softness of its breath, being able to touch that silk coat or that velvet nose, really makes these last few hours a little easier.
Dogs and cats are much more portable and much easier to bring – my own dog did this for my mom when she was in hospice care; she asked me to bring her when I visited, but for those who love horses, it is a real gift to see one in that of all places. Riders need to be surrounded by horses. When they are separated from them, it is actually painful.
Peyo brings this to terminally ill patients in Calais, as well as their families. The same goes for many others like him around the world. There is even a establishment in Tucson which was built around equitherapy.
Like I said, horses need horses. I could even say that people need horses, if they aren’t all entangled in fear and negativity. This calm, this gentle presence, can do a lot to heal what afflicts a human.
And the horses seem to need to give that too. It is the basis of therapeutic programs for humans with all kinds of diagnoses, both physical and psychological. Like Peyo, therapy horses do what they like to do. Even horses that haven’t been specially trained for this will be remarkably gentle with humans in need. That’s a big part of who they are.
Judith Tarr has always been passionate about horses. She sustains her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as e-books. She wrote a guide for writers who want to write about horses: Writing horses: the art of doing things right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzaners, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.