FaceTime with horses: Shea Center uses telehealth to serve clients during coronavirus pandemic

A 10-year-old Tyler Bullard is stuck at home in Irvine, miles away from Mini, the horse he rode every week for years at the Shea Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano.

But a recent video call to watch Mini trot the Shea Center’s barn had Bullard smiling.

Mini even “kissed” Tyler through an iPad held by Matt Huebert, one of the Shea Center’s physical therapists.

“Tyler just keeps saying thank you,” Jody Bullard, Tyler’s mother, said after the call. “He really enjoys having an opportunity to meet with Mini.”

For decades, the Shea Center has helped thousands of people of all ages with special needs through equestrian activities and therapy. Riding the horses can simulate what a normal gait pattern feels like, helping with their own walking. Caring for a horse can also help the center’s clients develop social skills.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, means people can’t visit the center.

So, dozens of the center’s staff and volunteers have mobilized to serve as many of its 280 clients seen in a typical week as possible through FaceTime, Zoom and other telehealth tools.

“It’s bringing a piece of the Shea Center to their home,” said Janelle Robinson, the center’s director of therapeutic programs. “We just jumped on the Internet and learned as fast as we could.”

Having a routine is vital to the well-being of those the center helps, Executive Director Dana Butler-Moburg said. “It’s returning a sense of rhythm and normalcy to their lives when there’s no rhythm and normalcy in the world around them.”

Switching to telehealth wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch, she said.

How can a client simulate the movement of riding a horse at home? How can clients share a connection with their horse when they can’t touch the animal?

Answering those questions required some creativity by the center’s staff and volunteers.

At home, clients are sitting on a bouncing exercise ball to simulate the horse’s movement, for instance, while watching a streaming video of the animal trotting around the barn.

A few activities suggested that Tyler can do at home while interacting virtually with Mini include holding a brush and moving it like he is petting Mini while Huebert at the barn brushes the horse. Seeing and hearing Huebert’s brush caressing Mini gives Tyler a sensation that he’s interacting with the horse.

“Our clients see their horses as their’s,” Butler-Moburg said. “Even if they can’t touch their horses at the moment, by simply being at the barn and interacting with horses and coming up with creative ideas, it helps them engage.”

Each client has a different need, Robinson said. Some may spend two hours on a video call with their horse, while others may only visit for 10 minutes. Some may want to play with their horse, while others are content to just watch their horse walk around the barn.

The goal, Butler-Moburg said, is to get the center’s clients to feel stable and comfortable. “What we are trying to do is to find the known, and help our clients connect.”

Many staff members are now working from home, with a skeleton crew at the center to feed and care for about two dozen horses.

And as with many nonprofits, finding the money to keep going is a burning question. The center raises 86% of its revenue through fundraising activities, such as an annual gala. But the ban on large gathering drags on.

Still, Butler-Moburg vows to keep the center going.

“It requires us to be thinking in ways that are so outside the norm. There is no more normal,” Butler-Moburg said. “We have to continue to figure out what we are here to do in terms of our service and mission.”

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