Alex Peters brought her mini-horse Gunner to Langley Lodge to visit her grandfather Walter Willoughby, to the additional delight of her mother Terry Peters and grandmother Mae Willoughby. (Bob Groeneveld/Langley Advance Times)

Alex Peters brought her mini-horse Gunner to Langley Lodge to visit her grandfather Walter Willoughby, to the additional delight of her mother Terry Peters and grandmother Mae Willoughby. (Bob Groeneveld/Langley Advance Times)

Mini-horse visits residents at Lower Mainland care home

Gunner turned a visit with grandpa into a major event for everyone at the residence

By Bob Groeneveld/Langley Advance Times

Nobody expected to see a horse at Langley Lodge.

But Gunner was exactly the right size to bring back memories.

Alex Peters wanted to bring her miniature horse to the Langley intermediate care home where her grandpa lives.

She hoped it would jog his memory, or at least bring him back to happy times.

“He is one of my top male figures in my life,” said Peters of her grandpa. “He has meant all the world to me.”

But Walter Willoughby has changed since he lived in Brookswood with his wife Mae.

“Every day is a different day for him,” Peters said. “He still calls me by name, but I can’t call him on the phone or he doesn’t know who I am. He knows me when I show up in person.”

The dementia that has slowed him down has changed him in other ways: “He was always Mr. Serious, now he’s the jokester, always saying the funny thing.”

Even his appetite has changed. “He used to be the skinniest man in the world. He was picky,” Peters said. “Now he eats anything.”

But Peters was hoping one thing hasn’t changed.

Horses have always been a big part of Walter Willoughby’s life, Peters explained.

“Sometimes people with dementia can communicate better with animals,” she said, as she prepared her surprise visit with Gunner. “He might not understand why the horse is there, but maybe it will connect him to when he was in the barns and with the animals.”

On Monday afternoon, not only was her grandpa enthralled, the Langley Lodge garden was veritably crowded with delighted residents who all had to say hello to Gunner.

Kyle Sanker, who works at Langley Lodge, said that Gunner was the first horse to visit the home, but was welcomed as part of a culture that offers a variety of experiences for residents.

Music, horticulture, and other programs try to involve residents with dementia in a way that help them to connect with something that they loved to do.

“Sometimes,” said Sanker, “they get a nostalgic feeling of being taken back to a point in their life – it comes back in a lucid moment.”

Peters, who is planning to be a healthcare worker, was clearly pleased at the effect that tiny Gunner – he stands only nine hands, “probably the size of a great Dane” – had on many of the Lodge residents.

She got the 12-year-old miniature horse as a resuce from Nanaimo, knowing little about him, except that his feet have been “moderately deformed – not enough to stop him from doing what horses do, but they’re not right.”

His feet certainly didn’t stop Gunner from delighting a 100-year-old Langley Lodge resident into expostulating, “I never thought I’d see a horse again, not in my home!”

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