COLUMBIA — Carol Parmenter led two well-behaved miniature horses into a veterinary classroom Tuesday to meet 100 MU students.
Only waist high, the horses were wearing red or blue sports shoes to prevent them from slipping and had forgone breakfast to prevent accidents.
Cookie, 12, and Molly, 7, were part of a lecture on human and animal companion interaction.
Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, invited them to her class to demonstrate the ways horses, like dogs, can be therapeutic to those with mental or physical challenges.
"I hope Carol can show you a whole picture of animal therapy visiting including the training and safety issues related to it," Dr. Johnson said to the class.
Most of the students in the class are interested in human and animal connections.
"I appreciate this lecture because it's novel," said Katie Molitor, a psychology major at MU. "You don’t really think of horses as being therapeutic animals. You usually think them of pulling your car or doing field work."
Later Tuesday, the horses went to Tiger Place, a retirement center where they interacted with residents.
Cookie has been working with Parmenter for six years as a professional therapy horse.
He is also the first horse taking part in a program called Reading Education Assistance Dogs, which is designed to improve children’s communication skills. The program encourages students to read to and with animals, as researches show that while having physical connection with animals such as petting or stroking them, children feel more comfortable in communication.
"Animals are non-judgmental," Johnson said. "Children are relaxed and they don’t feel stressed reading in front of them."
Parmenter first took a therapy dog to children in the reading program, but found them reluctant to talk to it. The next week she brought Cookie with her and said she was amazed that every single child came up and read to the horse.
One parent told her she had been trying for two and half months to get her son to read to her. The horse did it in two minutes, Parmenter told the class proudly.
Parmenter has 22 horses on her farm in El Dorado Springs, but only three of them are therapy horses.
She said that there is no cost for her to visit nursing homes and schools with the horses. She keeps her trips within a 50-mile radius around her farm because of gas expenses.
"It's all about disposition and attitude," she said of the horses. "Just like people, some are good nurses, and some people are not good nurses."