FANWOOD, NJ -- Friday was a magical day at The Chelsea in Fanwood as Noble Attitude the Unicorn arrived to bring smiles to the faces of residents.
Dressed in bright red sneakers, Noble visited with residents and staff of the assisted living facility and even posed for selfies.
"He loves the attention," handler Maureen Coultas said. Coultas is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship or PATH certified therapeutic riding instructor, who brings horses from Hope's Promise Farm in Chester, New Jersey to schools, facilities for seniors and other locations throughout the state.
In actuality, Noble doesn't really have a horn and jump over rainbows. He's really a gentle, three-year-old miniature horse who loves when his head is pet. Once a week, the duo hit the road to bring delight to people who benefit from equine therapy visits.
Usually they travel to assisted living facilities, nursing homes, group homes, hospitals, rehab centers and schools with special needs students. The hour-long visits take place both inside and outside of facilities. The horses are trained to go inside of buildings, to go in elevators and even into the bedrooms of individuals who are bed-ridden.
"Sometimes the staff will say, 'Don't visit that person, they're not here anymore,' but I've seen people with dementia and Alzheimer's come back. They'll start touching the horse and talking to the horse and interacting," Coultas said.
"There's something about the horse wearing shoes that is unexpected," Coultas said. "During one visit, a man began to cry. It turned out that he was saved during the Holocaust as a little boy by hiding on a farm. He had not been around horses since then."
A self-proclaimed animal lover, Coultas wanted a horse when she was eight years old, but it didn't happen until age 40. She suffers from PTSD, because of 'horrific abuse for years' that she repressed.
"When I got on my horse, it healed me. I thought someone should use horses for therapy -- not knowing people were already doing it. So I got certified."
In the beginning, Coultas had to talk people allowing therapy horses to visit. Coultas believes people have grown used to therapy dogs, even though dogs, by nature, are predators.
"Dogs are hunters. Horses are prey," Coultas said. "They have a heightened sense of awareness; they know who is safe and who isn't, and when to be gentle. Because they are prey, they are always watching. They are much different than dogs."
Still, initially, convincing administrators was not always easy.
"Administrators were worried about germs," she said. "But then they saw what happened when the horse came in. It's just the neatest thing. It's really sweet, very touching."
Coultas says the most rewarding thing about her career is "watching little miracles happen."
"I've seen autistic kids who are non-verbal come to our farm and speak their first full sentences to a horse," she said. "Young people who have trust issues with humans (because of abuse or neglect) will talk to the horses. They do a total turnaround. It's amazing."
To find out more about Hope's Promise Farms, visit http://www.hopespromisefarm.com.