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Guelph woman finds PTSD relief in the form of a tiny horse

Is hoping a bylaw exemption will be made allowing her to keep the small horse in her city backyard

A Guelph woman has found relief from her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in an unusual way.

His name is Odin, a 10-month-old Shetland pony/mini horse cross that lives the backyard of her Memorial Crescent home and serves as the equine version of a service dog.

"I've gone from being seriously suicidal to wanting to live again, to playing again. I can't remember the last time I played before I got him," said Amy Lalonde, 37.

"The only way I can describe it is it's like magic. I don't understand why it's working, but it's really working," Lalonde said. 

Lalonde lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter at 69 Memorial Cr., a quiet city street bordered by neighbours on two sides, railway tracks and Goldie Park on the others.

Her husband built an enclosure in the backyard where Odin lives. There is also a shed for when the weather is bad.

But to keep Odin in her back yard she is going to need special permission from the city. Horses are on a list of animals not allowed within city limits.

City bylaw officials are working on creating an amendment to the current bylaw that would allow for an exemption for service animals, even horses. Those would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, said Dave Wiedrick, manager of bylaw, compliance and security for the city.

"We've even had a service snake," Wiedrick said.

Odin is playful, gets regular visits from children playing at the adjacent park and even gets taken for the occasional walk along the trail beside the railway tracks that run behind the home.

But Odin is much more than a pet to Lalonde.

Three months ago the Powassan, Ont., native was officially given a collective diagnosis of PTSD by her doctor and therapist, the result of years of physical abuse as a child.

"I've been really, really sick for two years," said Lalonde, who said her PTSD manifested itself in a variety of physical symptoms similar to auto-immune deficiency.

"Most days for the past two years I could barely got off the couch ... I was kind of just spiraling down," she said.

In addition to the physical symptoms, there were almost daily panic attacks and constant fear.

"It sounds crazy, but I was really relieved just to get a diagnosis. I was so sick."

Internet research led her to a number of articles about the therapeutic benefits of horses. Several organizations exist that use them to help treat veterans with PTSD.

So she bought Odin from a Cayuga farm after checking with the city to see if it was okay.

Odin, she says, has been a "life saver."

"I don't really understand the mechanism of how it's helping, but I've literally gone from two or three panic attacks a day to about one a week."

There are still bad days, but she said that just hanging out near Odin makes her feel better.

Other animals she's had in the past didn't have the same effect.

"I don't know why horses work better than other animals, all I know is that it is really helping," Lalonde said. "I have energy again and I can function again."

Wiedrick said that an amendment to the current bylaw allowing for exemptions is in the works.

"There used to be an exemption within the bylaw but it was only for 14 days," said Wiedrick, adding that the exemption was for things such as circus elephants.

A bylaw amendment would require council approval, which will take time.

Wiedrick said Lalonde and Odin are okay, providing they maintain the level of care, safety and health of the horse that is required.

"We've asked her to work with the Humane Society," he said.

Lalonde said she is thankful that the city is willing to work with her on this.

"They were really supportive and really encouraging," Lalonde said of the city bylaw department. "They are really trying to be very helpful."

A vet has checked out Odin, bylaw officers have been by her house and both the Guelph Humane Society and Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also visited, she said.

A recent email from the city said there had been "a number of complaints" about "your pony," although Lalonde said nobody has said anything to her.

Lalonde had originally told the city she would be buying "a mini" horse but Odin was as small as she could get.

Megan Swan, an animal control officer with the Guelph Humane Society, wouldn't discuss Lalonde's case specifically but said the GHS would only respond to an animal if a complaint was made.

"I'm just really nervous," she said of waiting for an exemption to officially be made, allowing her to keep Odin.

"I don't want to go back to what I was before."