In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

July 14, 2022

Little horse makes a big impact while visiting hospice patients

By In the Loop

A miniature horse named Baron makes a big impact on the patients he visits through the Mayo Clinic Hospice pet therapy program. He seems to sense who needs companionship and support his human partner says.


Cindy Forrer had a list of patients to visit. But Forrer, a volunteer with Mayo Clinic Hospice, knew it wasn't really her they wanted to see. It was her partner, Baron, a 7-year-old miniature horse who is part of the Mayo Clinic Hospice pet therapy program.

"His superpower is being able to read people," Forrer says. "He seems to sense who needs companionship and support."

That was evident as Baron and Forrer walked to their first appointment at the care center at Mayo Clinic Health System in Lake City. It was a slow journey. Baron stopped to greet several people in wheelchairs and walkers along the way.

"Make a fist and offer it to him to smell," Forrer told each curious passerby. "That's how horses get to know you."

After several unscheduled stops, Baron made his first official visit to Betty Zweig. She offered her fist as instructed and was rewarded with a gentle nuzzle.

"He's so good," Betty noted with wonder, smiling as she gazed at Baron and chatted with Forrer. No, Betty shared, she'd never had pets. Yes, she loved animals. And are those flowers in his mane?

In the company of Forrer and Baron, Betty became alert and engaged. That's common during pet therapy says Pam Roe, a volunteer coordinator for Mayo Clinic Hospice.

"Visiting with animals brightens people up," Roe says. "They become more expressive and talkative. Animals can connect with people in ways that people can't. They can lower anxiety and provide a much-needed distraction for our patients. A visit from Baron or one of our therapy dogs provides a nice break in their day."

Betty agrees.

"It's a treat for me," she says of visiting with Baron and Izzy, a therapy dog she'd spent time with earlier in the week.

After leaving Betty, Baron visited several other hospice patients. Among them was a bed-bound man who locked eyes with the little horse. The two seemed to communicate without saying a word. Baron leaned his head down, pressing his nose to the man's cheek.

"He gave you a kiss," Forrer said. "He doesn't usually do that."

"There's a lot of isolation at the end of life. For many people, their world shrinks. The more you can bring to them, the bigger their world gets."

Pam Roe

Baron and the patient shared a few more minutes of silent communion. Then, in a quiet voice, the man said, "I'd like to see him again."

To Roe and her colleagues, that kind of request affirms the importance of programs like pet therapy.

"There's a lot of isolation at the end of life," Roe says. "For many people, their world shrinks. The more you can bring to them, the bigger their world gets."

And sometimes, even little things — like a miniature horse — can make a big impact.

Betty Zwieg with Baron, a 7-year-old miniature horse who is part of the Mayo Clinic Hospice pet therapy program.

That was evident in Baron's last visit. He walked into a room that seemed made for him. There were horse photos, a horse calendar and a woman in a horse sweatshirt lying under a blanket featuring horses.

Though the woman's movements were limited, her eyes seemed to dance as she looked at Baron. Here was something she loved. Here was a memory. Here was a smile that radiated peace.


Editor's note: Mayo Clinic Hospice welcomes applications from animals and their humans who are interested in providing comfort to people at the end of life. "We never have enough pet therapy pairs to meet the requests for visits," Roe says. To learn about the requirements for certifying your pup, visit the Alliance for Therapy Dogs. Mini-horse owners can visit the Miniature Equine Therapy Standards Association. To become a hospice volunteer — with or without a four-legged friend — complete this application.


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Tags: Cindy Forrer, Employee Stories, Mayo Clinic Health System in Lake City, Mayo Clinic Hospice, Pam Roe

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