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Meet Local Therapy Animals

Horses, Llamas and Dogs Offer Hope and Healing

Name: Tarzan

Age: 19

Carson was 12 years old and on her fourth round of chemotherapy when she arrived at Paloma Trails for a playdate with a unicorn. She was sick from treatments, anxiety-ridden and had lost all her hair. Her mother, Brittany Cox, discovered the stable online and wanted her daughter to just give it a try.

“I signed Carson up thinking, ‘We can do this and see what it’s all about,’” Brittany says. 

Carson was an avid horse lover. She took riding lessons for years before doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in her stomach. Doctors removed the mass along with her left ovary and other infected cells. But the cancer returned, this time in her lungs. Carson was in an uphill fight against Stage IV ovarian cancer, but her love for horses never faded. She arrived at Paloma Trails fully dressed in her English riding gear. It had sat unused in her closet for years. 

Now, she was determined to ride again. 

Paloma Trails: A Tranquil Setting for Learning and Care

In English, the Spanish word paloma means "dove," a tranquil animal that universally symbolizes peace. Owner Paige Clough hopes the stables offer a peaceful place for people to learn therapeutic riding and horsemanship. Visitors can groom miniature horses or saddle up ponies and full-sized steeds. Some choose to learn barn management or horse care. Others simply want to dress up a miniature pony like a unicorn. Paige, a certified therapeutic riding coach, runs a camp and hosts one-on-one lessons to teach special needs children. She also personally trains all 25 Paloma Trails horses to provide some sort of therapy. 

“I just call them the therapeutic herd,” Paige says. “They’re all living together and doing amazing work together.”

How Horses Give Therapy 

When a child arrives for a horse therapy session, they’ll start grooming and physically connecting with their horse. The rider gets exercise by stretching their body in new ways, and the horse gets a massage. Afterward, the child learns how to saddle up their steed, which helps children learn patterns and routines. The repetition can help soothe those with autism or anxiety, Paige says. 

Next, the child moves onto learning correct riding posture and how to give physical and verbal commands. Paige might play a game or teach the rider how to weave through cones. 

“It doesn’t matter what abilities or disabilities they have,” Paige says. “I’m going to teach them within their skill level how to ride a horse as best they can.”

While horsemanship offers obvious physical benefits, much of horse therapy comes from simply being in the presence of horses. 

“When you meet a miniature horse, most people just automatically smile,” Paige says. “Smiling releases endorphins in your brain. It’s actually a calming stress release.”

Blessings of Healing and Hope

Carson’s first day at Paloma Trails in 2017 was the start of a healing journey. She groomed a miniature horse named Nemo, dressed him and took him through a jumping course. She started taking private lessons while still learning to process her experience with childhood cancer. Some days she would confidently ride her horse or work the miniature horses. Other days she would feel scared just grooming her steed. Slowly, she began learning that caring for the horses well meant first caring for herself. Now, she’s intimately bonded with all of the horses at Paloma Trails and loves spending time at the stable. 

“For so many, horseback lessons or pony play dates feel as if they are just that,” Brittany says. “But for our family, and especially Carson, they have been the most special blessings of healing and hope.”

“For so many, horseback lessons or pony play dates feel as if they are just that. But for our family, and especially Carson, they have been the most special blessings of healing and hope.”

Name: Chili 

Age: 22

Figment Ranch on Mueschke Road is the go-to destination for llama therapy and anyone needing a break from the stresses of everyday life. It’s quiet, picturesque and filled with no-drama llamas. 

“These animals—they are so in tune with people and emotions,” says owner Ruby Herron. “It’s hard to explain.” 

Ruby owns the ranch along with owners Robin Turell and Sean Price. Ruby, who has multiple sclerosis, purchased her first llama more than 30 years ago from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. It seemed to sense her pain, she says, and helped her cope. 

Over the years, Robin, a longtime special needs teacher, welcomed students to the ranch and watched as they bonded with the llamas. They “have a sixth sense about them,” she says, and can bring out the best in people. Unlike horses or camels, llamas don’t kick, spit or bite. They are calm and can be easily led even by a child in a wheelchair, Robin says. 

“They can pet them, they can kiss them, they can hold them. ... They can accomplish something,” she says. 

The ranch is now home to about 70 llamas and alpacas. Most are rescued. Many are old. Some were abused. The owners established a nonprofit to help fund their care. A gift shop stocked with llama-themed products also helps defray costs. 

 “What it is to me is total happiness and bliss. It’s something we share with people that need that extra push or love.”

Dog Name: Andouille

Age: 1 1/2 

When residents at Elmcroft Senior Living first see a chocolate-colored poodle trotting around their home, they stop, smile and come alive. Andouille, a trained therapy dog, is new to the job but takes to residents fondly. They pet her, laugh and smile.   

“She brings me happiness,” says Mary Horner, her owner. “So I figured she could bring other people happiness as well.”

Mary and Andouille are part of a group called Therapy Pet Pals of Texas, a volunteer group of pet owners who accompany trained dogs into assisted living facilities. The dogs offer love and support to people who would otherwise have no contact with pets. 

“It was solely founded for providing happiness and companionship to a ‘forgotten’ part of today’s society: the elderly,” Mary says. 

Mary began offering pet therapy 16 years ago with a toy poodle. In that time, she’s seen her dogs help improve people’s behavior and lift their spirits. One of her most cherished memories happened when a stroke patient was able to tell a dog ‘I love you’ in very broken speech. 

“She had never talked in a long time,” Mary says. “And she was talking to the dog.”

Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs don’t need years of specialized training. The must be able to walk on a leash and above all have a calm demeanor. They need current vaccinations and basic obedience skills. Owners must have owned the dog for at least one year and be willing to share the love of their pet with the ill and elderly.