A pair of horses moved slowly through a cluster of wheelchair-bound nursing home residents.

The contrast couldn't be starker: An enormous Clydesdale towers above the group, while a miniature horse, barely 3-feet tall at the shoulder, gently nestles against the elderly residents.

The animals have come to the nursing home with Northwest resident Nancie Roahrig, a nurse and horse owner, who for the past 11 years has visited hospitals, nursing homes and hospices with her horses.

"It is a therapy in a sense," Roahrig said. "Just the comfort of having a horse come in and to pet them."

The horses, large and small, have gentle temperaments, which Roahrig says provides a sort of calming effect to the elderly, sick and dying.

She recalled one visit to a hospice when one of her miniature horses gently rested his muzzle against the body of patient. The man's wife told Roahrig that he had always been a horse lover, and although he was moving quickly to the end of his life, she was certain the visit was a comfort to him.

"She said the horse was bringing him so much peace," Roahrig said.

A few moments later, the man passed.

"It was truly an honor," Roahrig said.

Horses have long been used in various therapeutic applications, work that transcends the traditional beast-of-burden labor normally associated with equine species. Part of a larger school of therapy, equine therapy involves using horses to aid in mental health. Professionals in disciplines from occupational and physical therapy to speech-language pathologists also use horses to assist in treatment.

Many therapy centers offer horseback riding to physically and developmentally disabled people to help with motor skills and balance. But horses have also been observed to be effective in the mental health treatment process.

"It's pretty profound, comparatively speaking, when compared with office therapy or talk therapy," said Mickey Kay Troxell, an addiction and certified equine assistance therapist. Troxell also is president of the National Association of Certified Professionals of Equine Therapy in California.

Troxell said horses are particularly adept at helping people with therapy because of their intuitive nature and ability to observe. When horses are employed in mental health therapy, Troxell said the effects are almost immediate.

"It's amazing what horses can do," she said.

While the assistance Roahrig and her horses provide can't be definitively categorized and is difficult to quantify, Troxell said it's important and beneficial nonetheless.

"It needs to be done," she said, adding Roahrig is "definitely a pioneer in that regard."

Roahrig, too, is convinced that horses provide benefits to the people they visit.

The discernable effects of bringing horses to visit the sick or elderly might be scientifically impossible to quantify, but that doesn't matter to Roahrig. She's seen the impact a few minutes with a caring animal can have on people.

"My girlfriend had a daughter who was 16 and died of leukemia," Roahrig said. Like many pediatric cancer cases, the girl had to endure weeks in the hospital, a difficult adjustment for adults but one that can be particularly agonizing for children.

Roahrig said a woman brought a miniature horse to the hospital for the children to play with and visit. A few short hours with the animal seemed to brighten the children's spirits and help them forget about their illnesses.

Other people have seen the benefits, among them Yvonne Hellman, who volunteers with Roahrig. Hellman said her brother was living in an assisted care facility when Roahrig and her horses paid the residents a visit.

"I just looked at them and what they were doing and thought it was just incredible," Hellman said.

Patients at Life Care Center on La Cholla also seemed in awe of Roahrig and her colossal Clydesdale J.J., who stands more than seven feet tall and weighs more than 1,800 pounds. Equally awe-inspiring, however, is the mammoth horse's patience and disposition with the infirm residents as Roahrig gently guides him from patient to patient.

J.J. stops to nuzzle against elderly heads, or stands perfectly still while the residents stroke his enormous face and powerful legs. Later, Roahrig hands resident Donna Kutz J.J.'s reigns as the three walk slowly through the parking lot.

Perhaps the cause of less astonishment, although by no means less interesting to the wheeled group, was the comparatively diminutive miniature horse Snickers, who tops the scales at roughly 200 pounds. He sits as compliant as a toy poodle as the residents caress his thick mane and narrow muzzle.

Snickers accompanies Roahrig on more of her excursions than the massive J.J. Snickers goes on her weekly trips to a Tucson hospice. The horse walks from room to room, visiting with dying patients and their loved ones. The reaction for dying patients at the hospice can be small, but Roahrig said it is still discernable.

"It's such a slight gesture, but it is a gesture and it's beautiful," she said.

Often times, Roahrig finds that the older patients have had horses in their lives, whether as pets or because they grew up in rural communities. The sounds and smells often conjure up memories of happier times for the patients.

Snickers joins Roahrig in pediatric units at University Medical Center. Roahrig said she bought shoes for the horse at Build-A-Bear Workshop to minimize the clip-clop of Snickers' feet through the hallways. They also add something else for the children to remember their visit by.

"It's just a great thing to do," Hellman said.

For the horses, it's not all fun and visiting, Roahrig said.

The horses can be hired out for parties, school groups and special events. Snickers and other miniature horses do birthday parties, and J.J. the Clydesdale pulls a carriage at weddings and other events.

"They have to work for a living," she said.

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