Barrington nonprofit's virtual animal therapy 'so much more than a cute horse'
Cream Puff dons a unicorn horn and steps like the rest of the miniature horses into teddy bear sneakers before Jodie Diegel, of SOUL Harbour Ranch, goes live on Zoom for clients of her animal therapy program.
Tiny horses and donkeys with names like Cupcake and Mystery join three therapy dogs as they all show their faces and nuzzle the smartphone camera for kisses. Diegel's full-size horses do tricks, bowing and raising their hoofs.
The "whole herd" joins in, including 19 animals trained and certified through Pet Partners, a national program, to offer a calming presence.
"You talk about a virtual visit, and it's a cute horse on a screen," Diegel said. "But our animals are so much more than a cute horse."
The video calls last about 30 minutes, with time for a quick tour of the 5-acre ranch and close-up views of its furry inhabitants. Diegel puts on a similar show at 5 p.m. each Friday on Facebook live at www.facebook.com/soulharbourranch/ for volunteers or other fans to join in.
The new world of animal therapy, Diegel said, is about uniting people in need of comfort with horses or donkeys or dogs who can provide it, following the SOUL Harbour Ranch tagline of "Sharing of Unconditional Love."
It's about choosing to see the upside of the video visits -- they can reach more people -- rather than the downside. And it's about helping those the Barrington-based nonprofit organization already serves to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic.
"We see this as a long-lasting way of connecting people that are unable to be at an in-person visit, an additional opportunity to provide more visits to more people," Diegel said. "At least everybody gets to see the animals in their home environment."
SOUL Harbour Ranch so far has provided five virtual animal therapy visits to existing clients since April 3, and it has dates on the books to offer five more, including one Thursday for students planned through the Barrington High School Wellness Team.
The team is working to promote social and emotional wellness, as well as digital citizenship and a sense of connection during remote learning, said Amy Winkelman, the school's prevention and wellness coordinator.
"Any way that we can bring a smile to the students' face and stay connected, we're always grateful for," Winkelman said.
Eight adult participants in the Life Program of the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association got to make a Zoom connection with Diegel and "the herd" after their monthly in-person visits from the animals were suspended.
Emily Todd, manager of cultural arts and adult day programming, said the participants enjoyed visiting -- even in a virtual sense -- a place they've been before and getting a video tour "encompassing the whole experience of what it could be." The spectacle of shoes on a miniature horse also provided some needed comic relief.
"Everybody was giggling about that," Todd said, "and in this time, a giggle is so valuable to do -- and also to hear."