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Merlin the therapy horse brings smiles to Via Christi patients

Merlin the miniature therapy horse stands stoically in a Ascension Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital courtyard, enjoying the hand running through his soft mane.

“How old were you when you got your first horse?” asks Kat Rodriguez, Merlin’s owner and handler, as a patient gives the horse some love.

“Oh, I wasn’t much taller than he is,” the patient says, wiping away a tear.

Via Christi employs physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, respiratory therapists and more. But Merlin is a horse of a different color. He’s an equine therapist in a 2 ½-foot-tall, 130-pound package.

In October, Merlin began twice-monthly visits to the Via Christi Behavioral Health Center, and in April began monthly visits to the Rehabilitation Hospital, both of which are in Wichita.

Rodriguez, a volunteer who also works as a human resources recruiter for Via Christi, bought Merlin about two years ago, inspired by a friend who trained a miniature horse to visit nursing homes.

“Obviously, he’s cute, and people are drawn to him,” Rodriguez says. “I’m so fortunate he’s worked out so well.”

After a training process, Merlin was certified by Pet Partners, a national therapy animal organization.

During visits, the 6-year-old Merlin stands still as patients pet his mane, back, belly and nose. He rarely moves, a product of his training. Rodriguez says Merlin relaxes during therapy visits — almost to the point of falling asleep — because he enjoys them so much. His visits usually last about an hour.

“There’s a lot of joy and smiling,” says Julie Liming, a social worker at the Behavioral Health Center who often accompanies Merlin on visits. “I think he’s so new and different — most people aren’t expecting to see a therapy horse.”

Liming recalls the comment a patient made as she spent time with Merlin: “This is the happiest I have been since I’ve been here.”

“That’s why we bring him here,” Liming says. She adds that Rodriguez is unflappable, energetic, and a positive presence for patients.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Merlin spent an hour at the Rehabilitation Hospital. Patient Becki Busenitz invited her husband and seven children, ages 2 to 13, to visit as she was recovering from surgery to relieve cauda equina, a spinal nerve condition that ironically translates to mean “horse’s tail.”

“I thought the kids would really enjoy this,” Becki says. “This is a nice thing to do on the weekend, when I’m not in therapy.”

Rodriguez views her visits with Merlin as an extension of Via Christi’s Mission to care for all, particularly those who are struggling.

“My faith in Jesus calls me to give back,” she says. “It’s easy — I love it so much. It’s a simple way to brighten somebody’s day.”