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Meet the new “Equine Recruits” who are improving Patient Experience at Priory’s Specialist Brain Injury Centres

  • Specialist teams at Priory Burton Park and Priory Grafton Manor have recently welcomed two new recruits, Alfie the therapy pony and Isla, the therapy donkey
  • Occupational Therapy teams have noticed a profound positive effect on patients
  • The Hospitals specialise in care for adults with acquired brain injury (ABI) or progressive neurological conditions (PNC)
  • Extensive research supports the use of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Techniques in rehabilitation of patients

Alfie the pony and Isla the donkey, join Clover the pet assisted therapy dog as invaluable members of the team at the Priory’s Grafton Manor, Northamptonshire and Priory’s Burton Park, Melton Mowbray.

And, Occupational Therapists (OT) at both centres are already noticing the difference in patients’ mood and social interactions.

Priory Burton Park and Priory Grafton Manor provide highly specialised neuro-behavioural rehabilitation, for a diverse range of patient groups including those with an acquired brain injury (ABI), such as traumatic brain injury (TBI), stroke, or a progressive neurological condition (PNC). As part of this expert offering, the dedicated team is continually exploring new ways to support patient wellbeing and provide meaningful experiences to those in their care.

It is estimated that roughly 50-60 million people each year experience a traumatic brain injury1. Research has shown that depression is common after suffering an ABI with many patients displaying reduced social integration and higher levels of isolation2.

Often, patients suffering from an acquired brain injury can also suffer from a lack of motivation. Encouragingly, studies into Animal Assisted therapy have shown it can improve emotional engagement for those suffering with ABIs. This can significantly impact patient outcomes, as motivation and mood are key factors in determining success of the rehabilitation process3.

Jocelyn Plante-Bekenn, Senior Occupational therapist at The Priory’s Burton Park comments; “We found that Alfie and Isla had an immediate and significant positive impact on everyone. They provided a meaningful form of engagement that was accessible to all and created a positive atmosphere.”

Extensive evidence has also supported the use of AAT in the rehabilitation of patients with progressive neurological conditions, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries4. In addition, research has shown that animal therapy can improve patient outcomes for those who have difficulty with verbal interactions.

The Priory has a growing heritage of working with animals as part of its treatment services, including a therapy dog helping patients in Bristol who are being treated for stress, anxiety and depression, ‘pets and ponies in the playground’ at a Priory School in South Devon and regular sessions for patients using Equine Therapy, at the Roehampton Hospital, near Richmond Park, London.

Plante-Bekenn comments; “The introduction of Alfie and Isla has really transformed care at Burton Park. They have had a particularly profound impact on patients who are at risk of social isolation or who have limited communication and interpersonal skills. To be able to offer this experience within their own environment without the added stress of an off-site visit and potentially overstimulating atmosphere is invaluable.”

This success may be due to the tactile nature of animal therapy sessions and the ability of animals to communicate non-verbally and in a non-evaluative manner. Studies suggest that interaction during an AAT session can be highly beneficial for patients who ordinarily struggle to connect due to cognitive impairments or who may experience feelings of shame and be highly alert to social evaluation5.Plante-Bekenn adds. “The use of touch to convey empathy, support and reassurance can be a very powerful tool that healthcare professionals may utilise in the right situation. Sometimes however, a different tactile approach can have a surprisingly significant impact on a person in care.”

“Even showing patient’s videos and photographs of the sessions afterwards seemed to improve patient mood. In fact, we used the footage to remind our patients of their enjoyable experience during unsettled and agitated periods”.

Karl Jacks, Hospital Director at Priory Grafton Manor hopes to continue this initial success across the Hospitals’ rehabilitation service;

“We have increased access to this valuable resource through other kinds of experiences which we can bring to the people we support, including regular PAT dog (Clover) and other ‘animal encounter’ experiences such as birds and reptiles. We have been able to clearly see the benefits that this experience has offered so far, and we are keen to see further positive impacts this can have.”


For more information, contact;

About the Priory’s Brain Injury Services

Priory provides specialised, high quality, rehabilitation-focused treatment programmes for those living with an acquired brain injury (ABI) or progressive neurological condition (PNC). We support individuals who require immediate post-acute support, active or slow stream rehabilitation, or continuing care. The service encompasses all aspects of neurorehabilitation, including physical, behavioural, cognitive, emotional, communication and social, and is delivered within environments ranging from hospital settings to transitional living homes. Our Brain Injury Services are delivered across 13 specialist sites throughout the UK.

About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.


1 Majdan, M. et al. Epidemiology of traumatic brain injuries in Europe: a cross-sectional analysis. Lancet Public Health. 1, 76–83 (2016).

2 Fazel, S., Wolf, A., Pillas, D., Lichtenstein, P. & Långström, N. Suicide, fatal injuries, and other causes of premature mortality in patients with traumatic brain injury: a 41-year Swedish population study. JAMA Psychiatry. 71, 326–333 (2014).

3 Rabonowitz, A. R. & Arnett, P. A. Positive psychology perspective on traimatic brain injury recovery and rehabilitation. Appl Neuropsychol Adult. 25, 295–303 (2018).

Munoz Lasa, S. et al. Animal assisted interventions in neurorehabilitation: a review of the most recent literature. Neurologia. 30, 1–7 (2015).

Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 5831 (2019)

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