A Horse, Of Course

Nursing PhD student Sharon White-Lewis, with Sweet Pea, researches equine therapy for arthritis patients

Sharon White-Lewis earns a fair share of double takes as she’s driving her blue Mini Cooper with Sweet Pea’s head sticking out the passenger window.

“Is that a horse?” employees ask White-Lewis, a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Nursing and Health Studies, when she pulls up to drive-thru windows.

Sure is. Sweet Pea is her 175-pound miniature palomino. At 27 inches tall, this 7 year old attracts smiles and attention most anywhere she goes — especially when she’s wearing sneakers. White-Lewis, director of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program and an associate professor at Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences, takes Sweet Pea to hospitals, hospice centers, domestic violence shelters, retirement communities and inpatient mental health facilities for children and adolescents.

“I’ve seen the huge difference horses can make,” says White-Lewis, who grew up loving the animals watching “Bonanza,” but never owning one until a patient gave her a show horse. Now she has a ranch with 18 horses, many of them rescue animals – including Sweet Pea, who was found malnourished with barbed wire embedded in her nose and face. Now Sweet Pea is healed and is healing others.

White-Lewis was moved when a 102-year-old man in an extended-care center reached his right hand to pet Sweet Pea — he hadn’t moved that hand in years. In April, she and Sweet Pea were featured in Woman’s Day magazine. Demetri Fotopoulos, an 8-year-old Overland Park boy, met Sweet Pea last year at Shawnee Mission Health’s Lee Ann Britain Infant Development Center. He’s deaf, legally blind, nonverbal and was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes physical, cognitive and medical challenges. The center’s therapists were astonished how the little boy, who is unable to stand or walk on his own, reacted to Sweet Pea, holding her and petting her, his face radiating joy.

White-Lewis has seen these moments, and now she wants to scientifically quantify them by researching equine therapy for arthritis patients for her dissertation. She is scheduled to graduate with her Ph.D. in spring 2018.

“Sharon has blended her passion for developing new knowledge as a nurse scientist with her passion for equine-assisted therapy to improve health-related outcomes,” said Cynthia Russell, White-Lewis’ adviser and professor at the UMKC School of Nursing and Health Studies. “I’m so excited for her to evaluate equine-assisted therapy in adults and older adults to attempt to improve the troubling problem of arthritis as she completes her dissertation work at UMKC.”