Seeing therapy animals in the halls of a hospital is nothing new these days, but they’re almost always dogs.
At Calais Hospital in France, however, there’s a very different kind of therapy animal at work in their palliative care unit. Peyo, or “Doctor Peyo” as he’s known by his friends, is a retired show horse who visits patients and staff members nearly every day of the week.
Peyo’s human is Hᴀssen Bouchakour, a former equestrian trainer who left the show world when it became clear that Peyo had a larger purpose in life.
“I am to some extent this horse’s collateral ᴅᴀᴍᴀɢe, I didn’t ask for this,” Hᴀssen explained. “It took me a while to accept it. It put an end to my successful career as a sportsman, and as a showman.”
But he couldn’t resist when he realized Peyo has a special gift, something even animal behaviorists and ᴠᴇᴛᴇʀɪɴᴀʀɪᴀɴs don’t understand. Hᴀssen first noticed Peyo’s differences at horse shows, when his horse would pick people out of the crowd, seemingly at random, and insist on staying close to them. Soon, the trainer discovered that these people were always sɪᴄᴋ, ᴍᴇɴᴛᴀʟly or physically. In other words, Peyo seemed to instinctively know who needed comfort!
Peyo has a sixth sense. He decides which rooms he wants to enter. Somehow, he seems to always choose the person who needs him most. The 15-year-old horse has detected ᴄᴀɴᴄᴇʀ and ᴛᴜᴍᴏʀs in humans many times. After the pair started volunteering at the hospital, Peyo learned to tell his handler which patients need attention by raising one leg and standing by their door.
“It was very complicated to no longer be the master, and to be forced to admit that when [Peyo] detects someone [is sɪᴄᴋ], I am no longer in control,” Hᴀssen said. “When he decides, I cannot hold him back, it’s a need, it’s visceral, it is in him, he needs to go, and cling on to the specific person he has chosen.”
Peyo meets patients and residents from pediatrics and palliative care unit, psychiatry and Alzheimer’s services. He also visits the elderly and end-of-life children at homes. This unusual equine therapist, known for his ᴀᴍᴀᴢɪɴɢ sense of people and their needs, has a presence that undoubtedly boosts patients morale and bring smiles to those who need it most. Doctors and nurses say that routine contact with Peyo is improving patients’ mood.
Hᴀssen now works with a therapeutic ᴏʀɢᴀɴization called Les Sabots du Coeur, which is conducting a scientific study of Peyo’s unique abilities. They are particularly interested in how a visit with Peyo can reduce patients’ ᴘᴀɪɴ so significantly that they no longer require heavy ᴅʀᴜɢs.
Bringing a large horse into a sterile hospital environment isn’t always easy. Hᴀssen spends about two hours before each trip grooming Peyo and cleaning him with disɪɴfᴇᴄᴛant wipes. The horse has even learned to signal when he needs to go to the bathroom outside by moving his body from side to side in a certain way!
Since they started their work back in 2016, Peyo and Hᴀssen have comforted thousands of patients and eased the end-of-life transition for more than 1,000 terminally ɪʟʟ patients.
“Peyo is my other half, he is my life partner, he is everything to me,” Hᴀssen said.
Peyo is one incredible horse, but his handler deserves plenty of credit for devoting his life to this important work, too! Easing people’s pᴀssing is such a beautiful way to show love for others.