At the Jackson Hole
Therapeutic Riding Association (JHTRA), you can often
find students practicing their fine motor skills. At
school, these children may be teased at lunch when they
struggle to open their milk cartons; many hide the
cartons under the table so no one else can see. But at
JHTRA, they don't have to hide.
JHTRA not only
provides these students a safe space to practice their
skills but also provides a unique atmosphere so that the
therapy sessions don't feel like therapy. A student sits
on top of a horse, and the instructor clips clothespins
into the horse's mane. The child practices her fine motor
skills by unclipping the pin and then clipping it onto
the instructor's collar.
The students aren't in a clinical, white-walled place,
and so for a lot of our riders, they don't necessarily
know that they're receiving therapy. And I think that is,
in part, what allows us to be so successful.
“It's not a traditional therapeutic
session,” explains Tori Fancher, Executive
Director of JHTRA. “The students aren't in a
clinical, white-walled place, and so for a lot of our
riders, they don't necessarily know that they're
receiving therapy. And I think that is, in part, what
allows us to be so successful.”
JHTRA is just one of many rural organizations across the
country using animals to help people heal. Hawaii Fi-Do pairs
service dogs with people who have disabilities other than
blindness. These dogs can be trained to do anything from
retrieving fallen objects and opening doors to sounding
an alarm if the owner needs medical attention.
Sometimes, animals are there for emotional support and
social interaction. Shelly the tortoise and Oliver the
pot-bellied pig simply keep Chautauqua Rehabilitation &
Nursing Center (CRNC) residents company. Yet the animals'
“simple” task helps residents feel
happy and purposeful and even puts visitors at ease in a
Service animals increase people's independence and
For many individuals, animals are an important part of
their everyday routine. “Service animals
increase people's independence and
self-confidence,” explains Travis Hoffman,
Advocacy Coordinator at Summit Independent
Living in Montana. He adds that service and therapy
animals alike give many people a sense of purpose:
“If these people don't have anything else in
their lives, they have this animal.”
Two of these organizations were founded with animals in
mind; for the third organization, the animals found them.
Susan Luehrs, founder of Hawaii Fi-Do, was a
Special Education teacher in the rural Kahuku High &
Intermediate School of Kahuku, Hawaii. She had begun a
program that brought therapy dogs into the classrooms,
and she loved watching once-reserved students interact
with the animals.
Even better, other students began to talk more to their
classmates with special needs, as the children bonded
over the dogs. “And our kids just started
talking and smiling,” Luehrs says.
“They had something that people wanted to look
at and touch.”
We're very, very grassroots. We have no training
facility; we use the community as our facility.
Luehrs began researching service dogs and soon became
certified as a service dog trainer. She founded Hawaii Fi-Do, the
state's first accredited service dog program, in 2000.
The program, serving those with disabilities other than
blindness, is run by a handful of part-time staff and
many volunteers. “We're very, very
grassroots,” Luehrs says. “We have no
training facility; we use the community as our
This two-minute video features Hawaii Fi-Do and laws
related to service animals:
Like Luehrs, JHTRA's Fancher worked with students with
special needs. “I've been working with
individuals with disabilities essentially my whole
life,” Fancher explains: Some of her family
members have a disability, Fancher used to work with
preschool-age students with special needs, and she also
taught adaptive skiing.
While working as a case manager for another local
nonprofit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, she learned about
JHTRA. Some of her clients were students there, and
Fancher sometimes accompanied them to their lessons.
Soon, she began to work for JHTRA.
JHTRA, an equine-assisted therapy program, serves people
of all ages with emotional disorders and with
disabilities such as cerebral palsy or muscular
dystrophy. Veterans are also welcome to participate in
weekly rides. Therapeutic riding focuses on a student's
physical, cognitive, emotional, and social well-being.
Lessons can help students build strength, work on
communication skills, and improve their balance and
JHTRA began in 1993 when three local women – a
horsewoman, a physical therapist, and a mother whose
child had special needs – wanted to bring a therapeutic
riding program to Jackson Hole. At first, the women and a
handful of horses and volunteers moved from arena to
arena to hold their classes. Once the interest in and
demand for the program grew, the women were able to raise
enough money to build their own facility.
Chautauqua Rehabilitation & Nursing Center (CRNC) of
DeFuniak Springs, Florida, wasn't looking to start a
facility pet program when Shelly and Oliver came along.
The 123-bed skilled nursing facility, which provides
long-term care and inpatient/outpatient services, employs
Oliver's owner, Brandy Meredith, and stumbled upon
Shelly the African spur thigh tortoise was found on the
side of the road in 2011. Veterinarians in the area
believe that Shelly, who weighs 60 pounds, must have
grown too big for his owner's accommodations and was set
loose. Two years later, CRNC obtained a class III reptile
permit to let him live on the premises.
Shelly sleeps in a “turtle hut” with
a heated kennel pad and spends his waking hours roaming
the halls and courtyard with Oliver. Oliver's a little
younger and a little lighter, at two years old and 40
pounds. Meredith began bringing him in as a fun activity
for the residents and then let him move into the
courtyard with Shelly. The two became fast friends.
The many benefits of the human-animal bond
In Hawaii, Patrick Hamlow's service dog, Umi, works
double-duty as he assists Patrick during his kidney
dialysis treatments and cheers up the other patients at
the dialysis center. Outside of the center, Umi alerts
Patrick when his blood sugar is low, retrieves objects,
and signals family members when Patrick needs human
assistance or medical attention.
Hearing dogs, like Star, alert their owners to sounds
such as cell phones, kitchen timers, fire alarms, and
doorbells. Some dogs, like Indy, can even sense oncoming
medical conditions such as seizures or anxiety attacks.
These medical response dogs can nudge the owner, sound an
alarm, or retrieve medicine when they sense a change in
their owner's health.
Like other therapy animals, Shelly and Oliver provide
emotional support as well as physical contact. Oliver
loves sitting on the laps of residents and visitors.
“He is very engaging and friendly,”
Meredith says of the pig.
The residents find the animals to be a healthy
distraction, a fun activity, and makes the facility seem
CRNC residents can't pet Shelly like they can pet Oliver
or visiting therapy dogs, but they can scratch his neck
and feed him raw vegetables like kale and carrots.
Shelly's love of snacking has led to a new hobby for the
residents, as they tend vegetables in the CRNC garden.
Meredith adds, “I engage several residents
every weekend to assist with feedings and to monitor the
animals when I'm not here.”
“The residents find the animals to be a healthy
distraction, a fun activity, and makes the facility seem
more 'home-like,'” Meredith says.
Plus, the unique sight of a tortoise and a pig wandering
the halls of a nursing home puts many visitors at ease.
Children especially feel more comfortable in this strange
new setting as they visit their grandparents. And if
visitors feel more comfortable, they're more likely to
visit again and again, providing their loved ones with
emotional support and social interaction.
In order to ensure a perfect fit between human and dog,
Hawaii Fi-Do asks applicants to volunteer and work with
the animals. Luehrs, who receives about 50 requests for
dogs per week, meets with each applicant personally and
discusses if a service dog is the best solution for that
applicant's specific situation. Dogs might be needed to
help the owner keep balance, to retrieve objects, or to
alert the owner to sounds or oncoming medical conditions.
Qualifying applicants receive their service dogs for
free; Hawaii Fi-Do just asks that the applicants give
back to their communities. Many applicants and their dogs
visit care homes and educate the public about service
In reverse, JHTRA volunteers sometimes become the
students. “We've had volunteers who, due to
incidents in their lives, have become riders,”
Fancher says. “They were able to give back to
humanity all these years and then all of a sudden they're
receiving that repayment.”
Other JHTRA volunteers feel the benefits of the program
even if they aren't taking lessons. Some volunteers love
their time here so much that they devote five days every
week to do anything from assisting with lessons to
working in the office or barn. They've told Fancher time
and again that they feel like they “receive far
more than they contribute.”
The animals too benefit from these organizations and
partnerships, since they need their partners or
volunteers to provide food, water, and attention. In
other words, they rely on their humans just as much as
their humans may rely on them. “This
partnership gives people a companion, something to be
responsible for. They have to take care of that
animal,” Hoffman explains. So for the
volunteers, participants, and animals in these programs,
it's clearly a win-win.
Allee Mead is a web writer for the Rural Health Information Hub. She has written on important rural issues, including maternal mortality and farmers' mental health, and has presented nationally on RHIhub's opioid resources. Originally from rural North Dakota, she has a master's degree in English. Full Biography