Hearts and Hooves uses mini horses to help those in need

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Proven through medical and scientific research, animals can benefit seniors, allow developmentally and intellectually challenged children break through difficult tasks and communication problems, lower heart rates and blood pressure. These are just some of the benefits of pet therapy used around the world in helping many people overcome obstacles in life, in whatever manner they might come.

Proven through medical and scientific research, animals can benefit seniors, allow developmentally and intellectually challenged children break through difficult tasks and communication problems, lower heart rates and blood pressure. These are just some of the benefits of pet therapy used around the world in helping many people overcome obstacles in life, in whatever manner they might come.

Melissa Sargent, founder/CEO of Hearts and Hooves Therapy has taken pet therapy in a different direction than most pet therapy services. With the help of her mini horses Chips and Tori and her 8-year-old family paint horse Nacho, she is able to provide services from children to seniors at her ranch in Ramona and with their small size is able to travel and make site visits throughout San Diego County.

Her love and work with horses goes back 15 years. Growing up in Lakeside, she was heavily involved with 4-H and Future Farmers of America. She is a certified veterinary assistant and recently, after nearly a year of intense training with Chips she is registered as a Pet Partner’s animal therapy handler. This is just one of the milestones that Sargent underwent in bringing her dream of a non-profit pet therapy business to a reality.

“I’ve been training Chips since March of last year after I rescued him,” she said. “I got Tori in October and she was imprinted for pet therapy at birth. Tori is training well and smaller than Chips so she is able to go some places that Chips cannot, like hospitals. With her, it expands my ability to serve more.”

Sargent said it was after getting Tori that she decided that she wanted to go non-profit, do this full time and do service for the community. “Everything is falling into place really nice,” she said.

“We enhance the lives of children and adults no matter where they are or what they are going through,” she said. “We offer two different services on site, here at my ranch where we do animal therapy sessions where we teach them how to properly care for the horse, and how to be around them safely. This teaches them confidence, and courage by teaching them how to lead the horses, and play games with them.”

She said games like Red Light, Green Light teach them to get the horse to go and stop when asked is just one of the educational games that work well with the younger kids.

“For the kids that just want to come out and be around the horses but cannot afford riding lessons because they are too expensive this is a great opportunity. Or children that have a condition that makes the parents or riding instructors nervous because they do not know how to deal with it, they can come here and be in a safe situation learning about horses,” she said.

She has also used her pet therapy in her personal life. Her father-in-law who has a brain injury comes and works with them. She said for him it is soothing and helps him feel like he is not a little kid because his brain injury makes him function at the small child level. He gets frustrated, so for him to be able to come and work with the horses benefits him in many ways.

Hearts and Hooves travel to senior homes, hospitals and anywhere Sargent is asked to go.

“If we get a call we will sponsor the first visit, and second if they want to continue and cannot afford it we will find sponsors to pay for the visits,” said Sargent. “This is a win-win situation all around.”

She said passing the Pet Partners registration, which is one of the well-known animal therapy programs in America, was great as they both passed with the highest scoring.

“This means he can go into complex situations, crowds and this was a milestone for us as a team and for him because I trained him and he is 13-years-old,” she said. “It was a lot of training on my part working with them every day. They train here and at my neighbors because they have fun bridges, in my house and then we take them out for training in the public.”

Sargent said this whole process is exciting and fun because so many people want this service. The support she has received from the community and sponsors is incredible. She has a meeting with San Diego Youth Services that deals with foster children, adoptions, and pregnant teens throughout San Diego. Her hope is to form a community partnership with them, work individually or take on groups while the parents go and have a support meeting during the session.

“This is where my niche is. I have gone through the process of foster children, been adopted, met my biological family and understand what these kids are going through because I have lived it myself,” she said.

But mostly, it is all about what the horses can do.

Chips loves being around kids and loves to be loved. Tori, only 9-months is learning quickly. For now, Tori works mostly with the younger kids at the ranch and it helps her in her own training by working with different handlers.

But as new as all of this sounds, it is not new to Sargent.

Chips works with a client that has ADHD and picks at her skin continuously and after working with him, she is picking at her skin less and shows no anger when things do not go her way. Her parents say this is remarkable progress because some of the smallest things can trigger her anger.

“Now, she asks for more homework so that she can do more work when she comes in for her next visit. Her mother told me she wished she had found this years ago,” said Sargent.

Tori works with an autistic child who mostly uses sign language because he does not speak very often. But his work with Tori is making progress in his speech. And Sargent said, his mother loves hearing his voice. “Watching him grow, gaining focus and engaging in this way is gratifying,” she said.

Sargent also uses her chickens in therapy, hatched at home for her own children. When using the chickens in working with the children what fascinated them the most is feeling the egg that will be laid from the bottom of the chicken sitting up right below the throat area. The kids love this discovery, she said.

Sargent said she is optimistic for Hearts and Hooves and wants to start working with the foster care system, wounded veterans or those that deal with PTSD. But she said her vision goes much further than that.

“We service anyone and everyone,” said Sargent. “There does not have to be a disability, issue or problem. We want to educate the public about horse safety, knowledge, and advocate for pet therapy being a form of viable therapy for everyone. We never want to take away from what doctors say about people with certain conditions, but pet therapy is an alternative that can work alongside that makes a huge difference, proven through so many medical and scientific studies. Just touching the animal has so many benefits that can enhance the lives of those who participate.”

To find out more about Sargent’s Hearts and Hooves Therapy practice go to her website at www.heartsandhoovestherapy.org and find Hearts and Hooves Therapy on Facebook.

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