BREMERTON — Move over, movie star horses Trigger, Silver and Champion. There’s a new wonder horse in town.
His name is “Diesel” and he’s a real hero because he helps sick people feel better and makes everybody smile.
Diesel is a registered miniature therapy horse — one of the first in the state of Washington, according to his trainer, Eileen Watland. And he spends an average of two days a week visiting patients, staff and family members at area hospitals, rehab centers and retirement communities.
While he goes other places, one of his frequent Thursday visits is to Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton.
Staff and patients ask, “Is it a Diesel Day?” said Edith Enns, the integrative health practitioner at Harrison who escorts Diesel and Watland when they come to visit. “People love him … By the end of his visit, my face is sore from smiling.”
Don’t call him a pony
Don’t call him a pony, Watland said. Diesel is a registered miniature therapy horse; emphasis on the word “horse.”
Unlike fat-bellied ponies, Diesel looks just like a regular horse, only smaller. A lot smaller. Think “Black Beauty” meets “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
He weighs 140 pounds and is about 29 inches tall. About the size of a large dog, said Watland. His small size and gentle, laid back nature make him a perfect therapy horse, she said.
“He’s so laid back he fell asleep one time with his head in a patient’s lap,” Enns recalled. “He started to snore and woke himself up and shook his head like he was really embarrassed.”
Helping the helper
Watland bought Diesel to train as a therapy horse so he and she could visit sick people and their families in hospitals and nursing homes. Miniature horses have a history of helping people feel better, going clear back to ancient Egypt, she said.
As it turned out, Diesel was therapy for her, too. She had been around horses her whole life but then, at age 60, a back problem put an end to her riding career. So, she thought having a therapy horse would be a good alternative.
Over the past two years, a special bond has grown between horse and trainer.
“It’s worth it. It’s so worth it,” she said. “I’ve really learned that my job is to take care of him and do what he needs … He really lets me know when he needs something or wants something or is uncomfortable.”
People and potty training
Earning his certification as a therapy horse didn’t come easy, Watland said.
Training a horse — or any animal — to be a therapy animal isn’t easy. In fact, there are three levels of certification — each one more difficult than the one before, Watland said.
The lowest level is “emotional support animal” — almost any pet can be trained to do that.
The next level is “service animal,” like a seeing-eye dog.
The most challenging level is “therapy animal.” Research has to show the animal’s presence and behavior can actually bring about a transitory change in the patient, such as lowering heart rate or blood pressure, or reducing stress, she said.
“Miniature horses are ideal therapy animals because they are so long-lived, compared to dogs.” she said. “Properly cared for, a horse like Diesel can live 40 years.”
Watland said it took two years to train him.
“I spent at least 10 hours a week training him when I first got him,” she said. “He’s a registered miniature therapy horse. He’s been doing it over a year. And he’s been in training for almost two years.
Diesel was born on March 5, 2013 and Watland acquired him when he was a two-year-old.
“We bought him down in Oregon,” she said. “He was also Oregon State Halter Champion, which didn’t mean anything to me except that they had hauled him all over the country and to fairs — a lot of noise, a lot of people, a lot of petting, and that’s what you have to do with [a therapy horse]. They have to be able to go everywhere so nothing bothers them. I spent [the first year] taking him everywhere I could, desensitizing him to kids.”
The hardest part: training him to poop and pee on command. (Nobody wants Diesel to have an “accident” in a patient’s room.)
“It was probably six months before he was potty trained,” she said. “I spent two weeks … sitting out on a bucket just watching him poop and pee and I kind of got his pattern down. To train him, she then followed Diesel around for two weeks — one time for 48 hours straight — and every time he relieved himself, she clicked a little toy clicker, praised him and gave him a treat. (One of his favorite treats is fresh grass because he almost never gets any. Turn a miniature horse out onto a grass pasture and he will eat until he makes himself sick and founders, Watland said.)
“It’s Diesel Day!”
July 20 was Diesel Day at Harrison, but preparations started the day before. That’s when Watland and her daughter trimmed Diesel’s mane and tail, cleaned his hooves, curry combed his coat until it shone and, finally, gave him a full-body shampoo. Then they spent two hours drying him with hair dryers.
“It takes a lot of work,” Watland said. “Patients can’t pet him and have a handful of hair coming off his back.”
Once he’s clean and dry, they put on a monogrammed stable blanket to help keep him clean. Diesel’s wardrobe includes eight blankets with different weights for winter and summer.
Before they left for the hospital on Thursday, Diesel got a second polish: Watland scrubbed him down with wet wipes and cleaned his hooves. Then she put on the red “Therapy Horse” saddle pad that he only wears when he is working.
“When I put that on him, he knows it’s time to get down to business,” Watland said.
After about an hour of grooming, it was into the specially equipped mini-van. Supportive friends and neighbors gave Watland the van and built a special stall in the back for Diesel.
Enns is there to meet them when they pull up into the parking lot at Harrison. According to the medical center, programs like aroma therapy, art therapy, music therapy — and, of course, pet therapy —“have been proven to reduce pain, relieve stress and create a sense of calm in those receiving medical care, enhancing the healing power of conventional medicine.”
Before they go in, Diesel gets one more chance to go potty and then Watland puts rubber booties on him. She said he hates the booties, but they keep him from slipping and sliding on the slick floors in patients’ rooms. One of his favorite tricks, she said, is to casually cross his front or back legs and try to scrape the booties off “if he thinks nobody’s looking.”
Bootied and pottied, it was time to go inside.
“Diesel is amazing. He’s wonderful,” said Enns as she led Diesel and Watland on their first visit — with 90-year-old George Lawton of Bremerton.
Diesel laid his head in Lawton’s lap and closed his eyes while Lawton petted his head and neck.
“I think you could get emotional about an animal like that,” Lawton said, scratching Diesel’s neck. For his part, Diesel appeared to almost go to sleep.
“[Diesel] actually fell asleep with his head in someone’s lap one time,” Enns recalled. “Then he started snoring and woke himself up. He looked really embarrassed.”
From there, it was down to visit Amy Brumbaugh, 42, of Port Orchard. All along the way, staff and visitors stop and visit and pet Diesel. “It’s Diesel Day!” said one employee.
In Brumbaugh’s patient room, Diesel put his head on the covers of her bed.
“He’d get up on the bed with you if you’d let him,” Watland said. Brumbaugh and Watland chatted amiably; Diesel surreptitiously crossed his back legs and tried to work off his rubber booties until Watland touched him on his hind leg with a gentle “No.” He stopped.
Out in the hall again, Diesel was waylaid by six-year-old Clarence Ulrich and his sister, Evelyn, who’s a year older. They were all dressed up because it was Evelyn’s birthday and they and their great-grandmother, Shirley Ortega, were there visiting a friend of their late mother. More hugs, more kisses. As a present, Enns gave each of them a Diesel trading card (all of the pet therapy animals at Harrison have their own cards).
And then it was off to another floor, another patient.
Because Thursday is Diesel Day.
— Terryl Asla is a reporter for the Kitsap Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Handler: Eileen Watland
Breed: AMHA Miniature Horse
Born: March 5, 2013
Certification: Pet Partners registered miniature therapy horse.
Insured for: $5 million in liability.
How he got his name: When they first got him, Watland said he acted “a little uppity” with the other horses. Watland’s little grandson said they should name him “Diesel” because he was acting just like Diesel, a character on the TV show “Thomas and Friends.”
Likes: Hugs, being petted and sleeping with his head in your lap.
Tricks: Signaling yes or no, waving a flag, laying down, and crossing his legs.
Guilty secret: He loves paper. He’ll eat your homework or the papers on a desk, as the staff at Harrison Medical Center learned the hard way.
How many clothes does he own? Eight stable blankets, with different weights for winter and summer; a special saddle made just for him; and an official “therapy horse” vest he wears when he’s working.
Average number of days he works a week: Two.
Volunteer at Harrison Medical Center since: July 2016.
Inspired by Diesel, there will soon be five registered therapy horses in the state. Four of them are here in Kitsap County: Muffin, Raindrop, Strawberry and Diesel.