Caring in action: Therapy miniature horses, dogs bring the love through Barrington program

  • A resident at Barrington Woods gets a kick out of visiting with miniature horse Lunar, who is part of the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program.

    A resident at Barrington Woods gets a kick out of visiting with miniature horse Lunar, who is part of the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program. Courtesy of SOUL Harbour Ranch

  • Lunar gets a pat during a visit to JourneyCare in Barrington. The SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program has 10 miniature horses, eight registered therapy dogs, and even a therapy cat that visits in a stroller.

    Lunar gets a pat during a visit to JourneyCare in Barrington. The SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program has 10 miniature horses, eight registered therapy dogs, and even a therapy cat that visits in a stroller. Courtesy of SOUL Harbour Ranch

 
 
Updated 1/30/2022 9:33 AM

These days, it's not so unusual to see therapy dogs roam hospital hallways or visiting nursing home rooms.

What may be a little more unusual is seeing sneaker-wearing miniature horses waiting their turn to offer up a little nuzzle.

 

The SOUL Harbour Ranch Therapy Program in Barrington brings miniature horses -- as well as its trained dogs -- to spread a little love to the elderly, people who are sick or those who just need a little comfort.

Jodie Diegel and her husband, Jerry, owners of SOUL Harbour Ranch, have grown the program to 50 volunteers with various therapy animals. Their hope is to continue to expand their offerings to keep spreading the joy these loving animals bring.

Jodie discusses the programs they offer and how you can join their team or offer other assistance.

Q: What is the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program? Give a brief overview of what the organization does.

A: The SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program is an all-volunteer 501(c)3 located in Barrington, home to founder and president Jodie Diegel and her husband, Jerry.

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Jodie first started doing animal-assisted therapy work in 2010 at Northwest Community Hospital with her golden retriever Buffett. A second dog, Dudley (a yellow Lab rescue), became a therapy dog and started visiting as well.

Lunar, a miniature horse with the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, nuzzles a patient at Loyola. Horses and dogs with the program visit area hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions to bring joy and comfort.
Lunar, a miniature horse with the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, nuzzles a patient at Loyola. Horses and dogs with the program visit area hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions to bring joy and comfort. - Courtesy of SOUL Harbour Ranch

Then Jodie, a registered nurse, saw an ad for miniature therapy horses. She was already a big horse owner to Garth and Stitch, so she decided to add miniatures Mystery, Turnabout and Lunar to her crew in 2012.

Pretty soon, a wealth of volunteers and more therapy animals joined and the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program has now grown to be the Chicagoland's most experienced, comprehensive animal therapy program.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Now there are 10 miniature horses, eight registered therapy dogs, and even a therapy cat! Miniature donkeys also live at SOUL Harbour Ranch and are involved in on-site visits.

A beautiful new barn was added to the 5-acre property in 2019, allowing for improved conditions for the animals and humans, as well as expansion of on-site visits and programs.

The heart and SOUL of our organization are our incredible volunteers and special animals. The teamwork and camaraderie we have is second to none. We have approximately 50 volunteers, plus 20 high school students who they mentor in the SOUL Buddies Animal Therapy Club at Barrington High School.

Our animals visit and share their unconditional love with those in need at hospitals, nursing homes and retirement communities, schools, libraries, veteran facilities, homes for the disabled, and more.

The program differentiates itself by ensuring that all therapy animal teams are tested and registered through Pet Partners, www.petpartners.org. All therapy animal teams are tested by an experienced Pet Partners evaluator every two years.

Additionally, each volunteer handler must test on each animal they want to handle, because not all animals are the same. This ensures the highest level of competency and safety for all.

Lunar, a miniature horse that is part of the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program gets a loving hug from a patient at Loyola.
Lunar, a miniature horse that is part of the SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program gets a loving hug from a patient at Loyola. - Courtesy of SOUL Harbour Ranch

Research has demonstrated the many benefits and improved outcomes of visiting with therapy animals. There is increased empathy, acceptance, socialization, and the power of physical contact as they touch, hug and love the animals. There are also improved physiological responses such as lowered heart rate and blood pressure.

The nonprofit does not charge for visits and is funded solely by donations, fundraising, sponsorships and grants. Our visits are made possible through the selfless passion of our all-volunteer organization and the generosity of donors who support the sharing of our animals' unconditional love and healing.

There are many ways to support SOUL Harbour Ranch -- donate, volunteer, sponsor an event, or purchase a needed supply from our wish list. Your help ensures that our special therapy animal heroes share their unconditional love where it is needed most!

Q: What are some of your programs?

A: Our main program is one we call "SOUL to SOUL," where our animals and volunteers visit hospitals, nursing homes and retirement communities, schools, libraries, veterans, etc.

We have specific programs as well, including the SOUL Buddies Animal Therapy Club at Barrington High School, where we mentor BHS students to become registered therapy animal handlers.

SOUL Scouts is a program we host at the ranch to help Scout organizations earn specific animal badges.

The Walk with Me program is an exercise initiative where people can walk and visit with our animals. We host these monthly at Deer Park Town Center and The Arboretum of South Barrington from April through October.

The Read with Me program encourages literacy in a nonjudgmental way. We even have two children's books about our therapy animals.

Our SOUL Veterans program is held on the last Sunday of every month at the ranch from 10:30 a.m. to noon, allowing veterans, active military and family members to enjoy a morning visiting with our animals and one another. Guest veteran speakers are hosted as well.

Our Pet Partners-registered Animal-Assisted Crisis Response teams have special training to be deployed in times of area crisis.

Volunteers and their SOUL Buddies pause for a photo at SOUL Harbour Ranch in Barrington. The program is looking to add more volunteers and their animals.
Volunteers and their SOUL Buddies pause for a photo at SOUL Harbour Ranch in Barrington. The program is looking to add more volunteers and their animals. - Courtesy of SOUL Harbour Ranch

Q: Tell us about your animals.

A: We have 10 sneaker-wearing miniature therapy horses, all of whom are registered therapy animals through Pet Partners. Our smallest miniature horse, Mystery, stands just 26" at her withers. Nine of our miniature horses are registered through the American Miniature Horse Association. CinderBella, who is our tallest miniature horse, is a specialty breed called a Falabella.

We have eight registered therapy dogs, with numerous more in training. We also have a registered therapy cat named Touka, who visits in a stroller. We even have four miniature donkeys that, while not registered therapy animals, visit with guests at our ranch.

Q: Can owners and their pets join your organization?

A: We welcome the community to check out our programs and events at our website, www.soulharbourranch.com. Our initiative for 2022 is to add more volunteers who would like to do therapy work with their own wonderful animal and then join us.

We are hopeful to start on-site training in 2022 to mentor teams so they can also become registered Pet Partners therapy teams.

Q: Tell us about any upcoming events or programs.

A: While our visiting programs have quieted due to COVID and winter, please follow us on Facebook for our "Live at 5" virtual visit every Friday. Interact with the volunteers and SOUL Harbour Ranch and see the ranch herd every week. Watch for upcoming announcements about volunteer information sessions and watch us on TV at the Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade!

The SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program offers training for students at Barrington High School, one of just many programs offered.
The SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program offers training for students at Barrington High School, one of just many programs offered. - Courtesy of SOUL Harbour Ranch

Q: How can readers support your organization?

A: Check out our website to watch a truly heartwarming video of our therapy animals in action. Donate, sponsor us, help us by becoming a volunteer or ranch hand (weekly cleaning and feeding).

Please call us at (855) 408-7685 or email us at soulharbourranchatp@gmail.com to find out about volunteer opportunities.

Q: What else would you like readers to know?

A: We work closely with Chicagoland Dog Rescue, who offers a lifetime of free training for adopted dogs. Their trainers are amazing, and even if you haven't adopted a CDR dog, you can attend their training classes. As a team, we will help you and your well-mannered pet become a therapy team and join us.

Please call us so we can mentor you to become a SOUL team member and share the unconditional love of your special animal with those in need.

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