It’s not every day a horse clomps through downtown Bath, occasionally stopping to pop its head into shops and restaurants and allowing passers by to pet it. But for Horses Over America Founder Gerald Scott, it’s just another day at the office.

“I’ve observed the effect horses have on people and it is the closest thing I’ve seen to magic,” said Scott. “Seeing the effect it has on people is breathtaking. I don’t need to understand why it has such an effect on people, I just need to acknowledge that it does.”

Hudson Steele, 8, sits atop Hercules at Bath Department of Parks and Recreation summer camp Wednesday. Horses Over America founder Gerald Scott visited the camp with his horse. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Scott, 60, of Saco founded his nonprofit in 2020 after watching the mental health of people across the nation spiral during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5% from August 2020 to February 2021, and the percentage of those reporting an unmet mental health care need increased from 9.2% to 11.7%.

A retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and former captain of one of the Army’s three horse units, he said he believes “The best thing for the inside of a person is the outside of a horse.” He decided to combine his love of horses with his desire to help.

“The Army has a program called Soldier for Life, which means you’re supposed to find creative ways to help your community after you retire,” said Scott. “When COVID-19 kicked in, I thought ‘What can I do to help?’”

He adopted 10 municipalities in Maine and New Hampshire, including Bath, where he partners with local law enforcement to visit hospitals, youth centers, retirement homes and schools, among other local organizations. Along for the visits are his Friesian horse, Hercules and yellow lab, Molly. The program is free.

During his visit to Bath Wednesday he stopped by two youth centers, two retirement homes and ended the day with a walk around downtown. Everywhere he went, Hercules drew a crowd of curious residents and visitors who stopped to take pictures and give the horse a scratch.

Bath Parks and Recreation camp counselor Julia Cliffe tips her hat at campers sitting atop Gerald Scott’s horse, Hercules, on Wednesday. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Though it may seem simple, Scott said he believes spending a few minutes petting a horse has similar mental benefits to emotional support animals like dogs.

“Horses live in a natural state of harmony, like dogs,” said Scott. “They have something to teach us.”

According to UCLA Health, research on animal-assisted therapy found “petting animals promoted the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin — all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods.” Those hormones also help lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, provide comfort and reduce loneliness, according to UCLA Health.

Scott said his program is more accessible for two reasons: He travels to people and his program doesn’t carry the liability that comes when people ride a horse.

“You don’t need to ride a horse to get the mental health benefits,” he said. “If I take out riding, the liability of my program drops by 90%.”

Bo Rice,11, and his brother Tucker Rice, 5, of Connecticut stroke Hercules’ nose outside Reny’s on Front Street in Bath. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

In addition to bringing people a moment of joy, Scott said he believes his program will help mend bridges between police officers and the communities they serve. He achieves this by allowing law enforcement to guide him through each community he visits and letting Hercules forge relaxed interactions between officers and the public.

“I want to put the law enforcement out front,” said Scott. “I have them walk the horse, as long as they’re comfortable with that. Working with law enforcement is key because I don’t know these towns. I don’t know what each town needs and what neighborhoods are struggling with mental health the most.”

Bath Chief of Police Andrew Booth said Scott’s visit is “a great morale booster after dealing with COVID and being closed up for so long.”

“People love seeing Hercules,” said Booth. “Horses are a special animal and can be very therapeutic. We are lucky that we have a great relationship with our community already and it’s nice to connect with fun things like Horses Over America and other community events.”

Hercules stops to scratch an itch on officer Brett McIntire’s vest during his tour of downtown Bath Wednesday. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Scott said his ultimate goal is to include more than 10,000 horse owners across the countries, who would all be tasked with adopting a town near them. They, like Scott, would spend a few days each year visiting local organizations with their horse to brighten the days of those who need it most.

“If this becomes a national entity, it’ll be historic,” he said. “It would change the mental health landscape of this county. If I don’t succeed, it’ll be tragic.”

Scott said he’s in the fundraising process to raise about $8 million to bring his long-term plan to life. He said he’s speaking with “large donors” who he hopes will help raise the money he needs, but declined to say who those donors are.


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