James Griffin has always loved horses. According to The New Haven Register, the 62-year-old Branford, Connecticut man saw Roy Rogers perform with Trigger in 1956, and has been hooked ever since. But it wasn’t until 2004 that Griffin started using his love of horses to help others. That's when a friend suggested that Griffin and his 19-year-old American Paint, Yankee, visit nursing homes and children’s hospitals. “Horses just calm people down. They bring them out of their shells,” Griffin explained.
Yankee is now certified by the Pet Partners Society—which means that Yankee is free of disease, well-behaved and doesn't spook easily.
“Sometimes, patients might be screamers, or tend to lose control, and Yankee is fine with that. The only thing he can’t stand is gunfire, so I don’t take him to parades.”
From the very beginning, Yankee proved to be an intuitive and healing animal.
One of our first trips was to Madison House,” Griffin recalled. “We were there for a while, and the residents were all having a nice time petting the horse. But then, toward the end, the staff brought out a woman in a wheelchair, when everybody else was heading back inside. Yankee just went over to her and put his head in her lap, and the woman started talking to him. The aide told me with tears in her eyes that the woman had Alzheimer’s and hadn’t spoken a word in months — yet there she was, talking away to this horse.”
Griffin also takes Yankee to Riverview Hospital in Middletown, a psychiatric hospital for children and adolescents with severe mental illness.
“Most of them haven’t even seen a horse close-up before, but it’s just amazing to see them interact. You should see the smiles on their faces.”
Perhaps some of Yankee’s empathy with suffering comes from his own troubled past.
When Griffin’s former horse, Sizzle, died of colic, a friend told Griffin about 5-year-old Yankee, an abused and neglected horse that had come up for sale. Griffin resisted. He wasn’t ready. But finally he agreed to meet Yankee. “When I met Yankee, he came right over and put his head right on my shoulder. That was 14 years ago, and I think it was just meant to be.”
In addition to comforting gestures like nuzzles and laying his head on peoples’ shoulders and neck massages, Yankee seems to know which patients need the most attention and will frequently hang around them the longest.
“You can truly see a connection forming,” he said. “If the horse is having a bad day, and we go to see patients, once he sees the people, his attitude changes. He just goes up and nuzzles people and becomes so relaxed and friendly. They can sense things we don’t know.”
Yankee also knows several tricks.
“People love to see him shake hands -- he lifts up a hoof for me to shake -- and then we play a game where I tell him that I’m a horse thief, and he tries to push me away,” Griffin said. “But the favorite is when I play dead on the ground, and he nuzzles me until I get up. It’s a lot of fun.”
Yankee now has a canine therapist companion—Griffin’s 6-year-old Shih Tzu, Dogie. “It’s especially good to see Dogie with the children in the hospital,” he said. “They just light up when they see him. And he sits calmly with them the whole time. Animals are just so non-judgmental. They give social interaction, and they don’t ask anything in return.”
To see if your pet could be a future therapy animal, click here.