On the days Sprout visits Memorial Hospital Central, it’s like a celebrity has entered the building. Camera phones start clicking. People rush up to touch him. Kids hang back shyly at first, then step in for a piece of the action. Fans shower him with one of his favorite foods: Cheerios.
But Sprout will likely not make the pages of People magazine because, well, Sprout isn’t a person. Sprout is a miniature horse, and when someone spots him clopping down the halls or stepping out of an elevator for the first time, the reaction is almost always the same: a horse in a hospital?
Why not? Dogs have been comforting and cheering up hospital patients in the U.S. for at least 30 years, so why not a 250-pound, hip-high, sneaker-wearing bundle of cuteness?
“He’s not just a novelty; he serves such an incredible purpose to our patients,” said Leigh Frasier, youth programs coordinator for Memorial Health System. “It soothes them. It’s so calming.”
The 13-year-old mini and owner Gretchen Long have been making the rounds at Memorial for about six months. Long had taken Sprout to several assisted living centers, and one of Long’s friends contacted Frasier about using the horse at Memorial. Sprout had to go through a certification process and get the green light from the hospital’s risk management office. There were a few trial runs, and he proved to be a calm, easygoing, well-behaved — and housebroken — therapy animal.
“You wouldn’t believe the reaction he gets. It’s so warm,” said Nathan Mesnikoff, Memorial’s director of spiritual care and volunteer services.
His first stop during his rounds on Wednesday was a room in the pediatrics unit, where several young patients and their parents had gathered just for Sprout’s visit. Long led Sprout around the room, where each child got to pet and feed him.
“He’s funny,” 9-year-old Ellie Strong said with a big giggle.
Ellie, who lives in Oregon, was visiting Colorado Springs and ended up in the hospital with appendicitis. Her mother, Lindsey, flew in to be with her, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that a horse would be in a hospital.
“It’s awesome because I get to see her smile,” Lindsey Strong said of her daughter’s reaction. “It totally helps the kids get their minds off everything else.”
It’s not just children who get to horse around with Sprout. Randi Dugan, 46, took a break from her physical therapy workout in the adult rehab center to pet Sprout. Dugan, who’s from Cotapaxi, has been in the hospital for more than a month recovering from a stroke. Because she’s a two-hour drive away from friends and family, she doesn’t get many visitors, so Sprout and some of the 29 dogs in Memorial’s pet therapy program ease the loneliness.
“Animals just have a way of giving you that love,” Dugan said. “It kind of gives you a little more hope — a lift.”
Some of the smiles Sprout gets is generated by his tiny Converse-like sneakers, which come from Build-A-Bear and keep him from slipping. Some smiles break out when he digs into any purse-like object in search of food. But most patients and visitors smile just because he makes them feel better, period.
“It’s really powerful,” Long said. “He just knows who needs a visit.”