Guelph woman worried city will make her get rid of therapy pony

Amy Lalonde of Guelph has a therapy horse named Odin in her backyard. But after complaints to the city's bylaw department and humane society, she says she's worried she's going to be told the miniature horse has to go.

‘He’s here, he’s helping me, I don’t want to lose him,’ says PTSD sufferer Amy Lalonde

Amy Lalonde of Guelph with her therapy pony, Odin. Lalonde has had Odin in her backyard for about a month and says the animal has helped her to cope with her post traumatic stress disorder. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Amy Lalonde admits having a therapy pony might seem odd to people.

Keeping a pony in her backyard in Guelph is also rather unusual.

But once she talks to people about how Odin helps her deal with her post traumatic stress disorder, she said many people think it's great the city has allowed her to keep the white miniature horse cross.

"It's unbelievable. I've gone from having two or three panic attacks a day, not being able to get up off the couch, being so weak and so tired all the time, to I have maybe one panic attack a week now," Lalonde said, standing beside a ring she and her husband built for the small animal, a cross between a miniature horse and a Shetland pony.

"I have energy again. I'm becoming productive again. I was playing the other day. I haven't felt joy like that – I can't even remember the last time," she said.

Odin sticks its head through the fence looking for treats. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

She doesn't understand how or why it works, "but it is and it's just from hanging out with Odin."

"If I'm having a really bad day and I can't do anything, I'll just come out and I'll sit beside his pen and pet him and talk to him," she said.

"I have two dogs and, I mean, they don't have anywhere near the same effect as Odin does."

But Lalonde said after having Odin for a month, the city and the Guelph Humane Society have received complaints.

Now, she's worried they're going to tell her she can't keep Odin.

Research shows therapeutic benefits

Dr. Katrina Merkies is with the University of Guelph's animal biosciences department. She says there's been a lot of research into the benefits of equine therapy. Her research focuses on how the animal is affected by it. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)
There is science and research to back up Lalonde's positive response to her four legged friend.

Dr. Katrina Merkies, an associate professor with the University of Guelph's animal biosciences department, said there are a number of studies that show the benefits of equine therapy.

"There's a lot of research out there that looks at the benefits to the human of animal-assisted activities or equine-assisted activities and that's been fairly well documented in terms of building confidence, building self-esteem, building those leadership skills, the soft skills, the social skills and even improving things like academic skills, attention span," said Merkies, who researches the flip side of the relationship between a horse and human to see how it affects the animal.

"The idea of using horses for therapy is ancient, for almost as long as we've been relating to horses," she said, but noted current therapy trends started in about the 1940s.

City staff working on a solution

Lalonde said she has been working with the City of Guelph's bylaw department to find a solution so that she can keep Odin. 

Initially she was told that, because she had a doctor's note saying she needed Odin as a service animal, she would be given a two-week exemption to have Odin and staff would just continue to extend it.

But now staff are hesitant to do that, she said, because the bylaw department and the Guelph Humane Society have received complaints.

Odin's enclosure is right beside a park with a playground. Odin's owner, Amy Lalonde, said children often come over with their parents to look at Odin and give him a pat. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The City of Guelph said it is currently working with the Guelph Humane Society and Lalonde to come up with an exemption to the animal control bylaw. That exemption would need to be presented to city council for approval.

"This would be our approach for any service or therapeutic animal that is on the city's prohibited list," said Michelle Rickard, a communications officer with the city, in an email to CBC News.

OSPCA agent Megan Swan said that for the Guelph Humane Society, their biggest concern is ensuring Odin is being cared for properly.

"If we receive any sort of animal welfare concerns, the humane society's role is essentially just to work with the owner and ensure that all the animal's welfare needs are being met," she said. 

'He's helping me'

Lalonde has PTSD from physical and mental abuse that she suffered through as a child. She said it wasn't until about three months ago that her therapist and doctor diagnosed her with PTSD.

She researched the kinds of therapy she could do and came across horse therapy.

"People were talking about almost instantaneous help with it. People that had been suicidal suddenly weren't suicidal anymore," she said.

The fact the federal government is funding studies looking into how horses could help veterans made Lalonde look into it even more.
Amy Lalonde and her husband built a large penned area for Odin. Her property is beside a park and backs onto railway tracks and a walking trail. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

She said having Odin in the country wouldn't help her as much as having him just out the backdoor.

"I didn't want to build a relationship with an animal and then kind of be stuck having to pay $170 every time I want to go spend time with them, which is the case with the therapy horses. It just made sense to get my own horse," she said.

Other people have come to ask her about Odin. The children who visit the park next to her home or the trail on the greenspace behind her property love to come over and look at him or pat his soft nose.

Lalonde said she wishes whoever is complaining to the city and humane society would come and talk to her about Odin, to find out why the horse is there.

"He's here, he's helping me, I don't want to lose him," she said. "I need his help. He's healing me. This isn't just some silly woman who wants a pony."


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