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Equine Therapy Reduces Staff Stress and Anxiety at Military Hospital

Image of Military personnel poses with miniature horse. U.S. Navy Capt. Ted Carlson, a commanding officer at Naval Base San Diego, interacts with a therapy miniature horse at Bainbridge Park. (U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aja Bleu Jackson).

Military facility animals—whose job is to de-stress staff and patients at hospitals and clinics—come in all shapes and sizes.

At the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD), miniature horses are one more resource to aid in coping with stress and optimizing the staff’s daily performance in an unconventional, yet effective, way.

Simply by being there, these tiny, shaggy creatures (about 30 inches high and 250-300 pounds) are showing they are just as capable of reducing stress and the anxiety in staff and patients as facility dogs used elsewhere at military medical facilities and the Uniformed Services University’s medical school.

The miniature horses—and, sometimes, mini-donkeys—are extremely popular at NMCSD. The military facility animals were actually called to work during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when medical demand was at its highest among overworked and emotionally vulnerable staff.

Their owner, Judy Lee Beckett, from a ranch outside San Diego, took all necessary public health and safety precautions, including the use of personal protective equipment and physical distancing so the horses could still come to NMCSD’s courtyard during lunch hours.

“The health and wellness of our team of health care professionals is a top priority at NMCSD,” said the hospital’s director, U.S. Navy Capt. Kimberly Davis. “Walking through the courtyard and encountering these miniature horses adds sunshine to anyone’s day.”

She added: “The therapeutic effect of these animals on both staff and patients is significant. The volunteer support has been greatly appreciated, especially during COVID-19 when we all benefited from fresh air and a fun distraction.”

If the pandemic proved one thing, it’s that doctors, nurses, and medical staff need to be in a healthy place, emotionally, to be effective for their patients.

Other military equine therapy proponents have seen the value of interactions with horses and recovering service members, such as a program with full-size horses at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Beckett also uses full-size horses for service member, staff, and family recovery at her ranch and has had an established relationship with NMCSD since 2008.

For both mini- and full-size creatures, the horses’ ability to draw people out of themselves simply by their presence and gentleness remains a much-awaited draw that has become a ritual for many on the NMCSD’s grounds and has even extended beyond its gates to the nearby naval fleet concentration area.

Researchers have learned that horses and humans tend to align their physiological responses to emotional stimulation. It’s called “mirroring.” A similar phenomenon occurs with other animals: Research has shown that people’s blood pressure drops simply by petting a dog or cat, while the levels of the so-called “feel good” hormones oxytocin and dopamine increase.

“There is something truly magical about these horses’ ability to empathize with us without being able to utter a single word,” said Kim Kobayashi Elliott, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at NMCSD, who advocates for the program and has worked with Beckett for many years.

“The importance of just taking time out of your day to stop and pause, and really look around you, to appreciate the horses, is pretty amazing,” she said.

“Animals have a way of unconditionally accepting you. Also, people feel more at ease,” Elliott said. “They can tell an animal anything, right? They don't break secrets. They're not into politics. But we're also trying to promote healthy recreation and experiences for staff and their families. That’s what these animals do for us.”

Learn about TRICARE’s coverage of hippotherapy, an exercise program that offers a person with a disability a means of physical activity that aids in improving balance, posture, coordination, the development of a positive attitude, and a sense of accomplishment through use of a horse and a physical or occupational therapist.

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Last Updated: September 28, 2023
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