Stressed Out At The Airport? Now You Can Play With A Mini Horse

May 15, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 8:21 am

Airline passengers have to deal with a lot these days; getting bumped from flights and losing luggage on top of the general anxiety that nervous flyers always feel.

At the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, miniature horses deliver a calming force two times a month. Denver and Ruby, two of 34 therapy horses at Seven Oaks Farm in southwest Ohio, trot out of their trailer and into the ticketing area.

That's where Shoma Anjola spots them. He's traveling from Toronto and saw a therapy dog at another airport. "It's quite amazing that I saw one on my way and then one [on the way] back to Canada. I've never seen any in my entire time traveling around different airports."

More than 30 airports across the country now have therapy dogs. San Francisco has a therapy pig. San Jose, Calif., began a dog program after the Sept. 11 attacks and now has 21 therapy dogs and a therapy cat.

The animals don't get spooked. They have had hundreds of hours of airport training so they are used to having luggage and people swarming around them.

The passengers love seeing the horses, says owner Lisa Moad. They tell her "that it made them feel much better, kind of calmed down, took a deep breath. A lot of them thank us for being there at that time because they needed that little bit of support before they get on the plane."

The horses' handlers encourage passengers not to be shy. In Cincinnati, giggling sorority sisters rushed up and took selfies, a dad tried to convince his shy son to take a picture with a horse, and a 4-year-old girl told her grandmother she didn't want to leave.

The Cincinnati airport was initially interested in a dog therapy program before discovering Moad and her volunteer miniature horse therapy program. Airport official Wendi Orlando loves when they show up. "It's just to ease anxiety levels, put smiles on faces. Clearly that's working," she said. "When you look at the passengers walking by, it just never gets old. They love seeing the horses."

Some passengers enjoy the animals so much that they call the airport to schedule flights around their visits. Visits to nursing homes and schools are also a regular part of the horses' schedule. Their owner is already working on a new idea for a therapy animal — donkeys.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Flying anywhere these days is stressful, right? I mean, you can get bumped from a flight. Your flight can be canceled. You're ordered to check a bag you plan to carry on because they say there's no more room in the overhead. Then you get on the plane, you see there's plenty of room in the overhead. They never explain that. Not to mention that flying 30,000 feet in the air in general just makes people feel anxious. Well, at airports now, there is a calming force. Ann Thompson of member station WVXU in Cincinnati says it involves farm animals.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: At Seven Oaks Farm in southwest Ohio, dozens of miniature horses are in training. These are Lisa Moad's horses. They're small white, black, brown and spotted animals that each stand less than 3 feet tall. They all have names. And today, she's giving Denver, Annabelle, Scarlet and Ruby a bath and a blow dry because they're going to work at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

LISA MOAD: We go through a process of selecting which ones we think have potential. From there, we do, you know, hours and hundreds of hours' worth of training so that these horses are used to going into airports, have luggage around them and people swarming around them.

THOMPSON: Visits to the airport, to nursing homes and schools are a regular part of Moad's volunteer schedule. She says she's amazed at the impact the animals have on people.

MOAD: They said it was so good to see the horses there, that it made them feel much better, kind of calmed down, took a deep breath. And a lot of them thank us, you know, for being there at that time because they needed that little bit of support before they get on the plane.

THOMPSON: Some travelers do a double take thinking the small horses are actually large dogs. More than 30 airports across the country have therapy dogs. San Francisco has a therapy pig. San Jose, Calif., began a dog program after 9/11. That airport's marketing director, Vicki Day, says they now have 21 therapy dogs and a therapy cat, but it all started with an employee's pet.

VICKI DAY: People were so uneasy about flying. And the dog was such a great help to people and was so welcomed that she contacted friends that she had that were also in the same therapy dog program and asked them to come as well.

THOMPSON: The Cincinnati Airport was initially interested in a dog therapy program before discovering Moad and her miniature horses. Airport official Wendi Orlando loves when they show up.

WENDI ORLANDO: So it's just to ease anxiety levels, put smiles on faces. Clearly that's working when you look at the passengers walking by. And, I mean, it just never gets old. They love seeing the horses.

THOMPSON: The horses' handlers encourage travelers not to be shy. Giggling sorority sisters rush up and take selfies. A dad tries to convince his shy son to be in a miniature horse picture as a 4-year-old girl tells her grandmother she doesn't want to leave. Elizabeth Lajeunesse also can't get enough of the soft, fluffy horses.

ELIZABETH LAJEUNESSE: Oh, they're so beautiful, so relaxing. I'm just here with my mom waiting for a family member to come in, and it's real special to see the symbol of our culture also and, you know, something therapeutic for all the passengers to enjoy.

THOMPSON: Some enjoy them so much that they call the airport to schedule flights around their visit. And Lisa Moad is already working on a new idea for a therapy animal - donkeys. For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WAR ON DRUG'S "THINKING OF A PLACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.