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Chicago-area RN and group of volunteers train miniature horses to go on therapy visits with kids, adults

Tuesday January 14, 2014
Jodie Diegel, RN, with her four miniature horses, Mystery, Turnabout, Jenella and Lunar.
Jodie Diegel, RN, with her four miniature horses, Mystery, Turnabout, Jenella and Lunar.
(Photo courtesy of Kerri Weiss of Weiss on Location)
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Jodie Diegel, RNC, BSN, LNCC, MBA, knows how good she feels when she’s around miniature horses. She also knows she’s not the only one who benefits from being around them. So, she formed Mane in Heaven, a non-profit organization that provides therapeutic benefits to disabled and able-bodied children and adults through therapy visits with these animals.

“Just watching the interactions and the people who are so excited to see these horses,” Diegel said. “That makes a smile that never leaves my face.”

Diegel, a legal nurse consultant for the past five years with Clifford Law Offices in Chicago, incorporated Mane in Heaven in 2012 after buying three of her four miniature horses — Lunar, Turnabout and Mystery.

The three horses became registered therapy animals in May 2013 through Pet Partners International. The fourth horse — Jenella — was bought in April 2013 and became registered in September. The Mane in Heaven miniature horses began their visits in June 2013.

“I wanted to take this beyond having cute little horses,” Diegel said. “I wanted to have registered therapy animals.”

Mane in Heaven operates mostly on the weekend, with one day for training and one day for visits. Training is commonplace for Diegel, who volunteers at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, Ill., in its animal-assisted therapy program with her two dogs. “It’s just like obedience training for dogs,” Diegel said. “There’s no difference [in the visits] except horses can’t jump in bed with you.”

The horses learn commands such as walk, woah, stay and visit during the informal visits, which Diegel said includes looking, petting, hugging and horsey kisses.

“Visits are an exchange of unconditional love,” Diegel said. “There is always this emotional and spiritual connection that is very peaceful. There is joy, love, laughter and smiles. That is the healing. We are the ones who are privileged to be on the other end of the rope. This is as much therapy for us as the people we visit.”

Diegel’s background as a nurse is one of the reasons she does the therapy work. She worked in obstetrics for 22 years at Northwestern Memorial in Chicago in labor and delivery and the ED.

“I have an understanding of the patients and residents,” Diegel said. “The horses are there to bring a moment of happiness and to take them away from all the stress and medical procedures going on around them. I feel connected to the patients through my horses.”

About 30 volunteers help Mane in Heaven with training and visits.

“I always deflect it back to [the volunteers],” Diegel said. “They bring it to life.”

Laura Dowling, RN, BSN, CCRA, MBA, who — along with her daughter and husband — has volunteered since Mane in Heaven began, started working with Mane in Heaven because her daughter needed a ride to the barn so she could work with the horses. Dowling, who works in clinical research for a private company, said what started as a way for her daughter to be with the horses ended up bringing the family together.

“This has been so rewarding for me and my daughter, as well,” Dowling said. “The reception that you get — that feeling that you get when working with the horses while visiting people — the initial reaction is joy. That just makes you smile. Then when you start to see the effect they have on everybody, it becomes so much more. It’s really phenomenal.”
Dowling said that her nursing background helps with the therapy work.

“I think all nurses always have an empathetic portion,” Dowling said. “You have to watch the horses. You have to look for signals from horses as well as the people you are visiting — when to push more, when to step back, ways to initiate involvement. Definitely, nursing has helped with that. You have to be very observant.”

Even with her daughter nearing driving age, the Dowling family is in for the long trot.

“My daughter will be 16 in May,” Dowling said. “We’ll still want to come with her.”

LEARN HOW YOU CAN HELP by clicking on the sponsor/donate button at ManeInHeaven.org.


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