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 Hassen 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 damage, I didn’t ask for this,” Hassen explained. “It took me a while to accept it. It put an end to my successful career as a sportsman, and as a showman.”
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But he couldn’t resist when he realized Peyo has a special gift, something even animal behaviorists and veterinarians don’t understand. Hassen 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 sick, mentally or physically. In other words, Peyo seemed to instinctively know who needed comfort!
Now, the 15-year-old horse has detected cancer and tumors 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 sick], I am no longer in control,” Hassen 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.”
The horse is popular with everyone at the hospital, from staff members to patients, but he’s particularly useful when a patient is nearing the end of their life. Having Peyo by their side brings them joy in their final moments and leads to a more peaceful passing.
“With Peyo, we try to recreate life at the end of life, in order to fight, and create an energy to accompany families and caregivers,” Hassen explained. “I accompany him but I let him do what he wants, he’s the one who decides.”
Hassen now works with a therapeutic organization 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’ pain so significantly that they no longer require heavy drugs.
Bringing a large horse into a sterile hospital environment isn’t always easy. Hassen spends about two hours before each trip grooming Peyo and cleaning him with disinfectant 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 Hassen have comforted thousands of patients and eased the end-of-life transition for more than 1,000 terminally ill patients.
“Peyo is my other half, he is my life partner, he is everything to me,” Hassen 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 passing is such a beautiful way to show love for others.
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