The Connected Horse program brings people living with dementia and their care partners together with horses. Our aim is to make the experience beneficial for all three of those groups: People living with dementia, care partners and horses. No one is to be sacrificed to create a good experience for the other. This alone can be transformative. Many participants use this experience as an activator. They chose to focus on what is important to them—to have hope, to fight, to find gratitude, to make lifestyle changes, or to learn self-care.
The care partner begins to see the person they are caring for in a new light, which gives them insights into their own role as well as the relationship between them and the person they are caring for. The care partner can take a step back from the role of the caregiver and let go of that need to hover over their loved one. The care partner can see that the person with dementia still has independence and can function. This can help the care partner begin to relax and let go. Both the care partner and the person living with dementia experience horses as profoundly generous and caring beings, gifted in connection, acceptance, boundaries and community. Utilizing and keeping older horses and older people engaged in life and having a daily purpose adds another layer of benefits to both humans and horses.
Until there is a cure for dementia, we need programs focused on care and support for people living with dementia and their family members. Specifically, non-clinical programs for early-stage and young-onset dementia are few and far between. The diagnosis of dementia is a social and health care challenge for the baby boomers.
Over 5 million Americans have a diagnosis today and this number is expected to grow by 40% or higher over the next 10 years. It is said that every 65 seconds someone in the United States develops dementia. Medical advances have helped to diagnose dementia much earlier, but often leave people with an earlier diagnosis facing a “Now What” effect. They are younger than previous generations and have to figure out how to cope with their changing mind and to continue to live with a dementia diagnosis.
The Connected Horse Equine-Assisted Workshops aim to help people with early-stage dementia stay engaged in their relationships and in their communities for as long as possible. Helping them remain active and vibrant will prevent people with early-stage dementia from “becoming their diagnosis.” Positive experiences with Connected Horse can be transformative, inspiring people to change their lifestyles, make and start to check off items on a bucket list, and feel more “normal”. As our horses help all participants learn to communicate better, their relationships have also improved.
Research findings and participant reporting indicate that people with dementia experience a reduction in feelings of anxiety and negative behaviors, improved sleep patterns and increased feelings of confidence. The increase of reciprocity was also observed, which means that participants showed increased behaviors that provide mutual benefit with each other and the horses. These activities highlighted the importance of giving and receiving care and included things like finding grooming activities that the horses liked, cleaning hooves, and helping each other halter a horse. The connection created with the horses can be transformative, inspiring the person to change their lifestyle, start a bucket list and even feel “normal” and accepted again. The horses help all participants learn to communicate and relationships improve.
In our experience, care partners want to provide the very best support to the people they love. They often enter the caregiving role with little experience in actual caregiving. They often risk their own health and quality of life in order to be a care partner and provider. It can be difficult for them to ask for help because they believe they should be able to do it all. The Connected Horse program strives to help shift this individual burden to a partnership model that provides friends and family members with opportunities to participate in activities beyond caregiving. The program assists in developing skills and strategies to reduce stress, learn how to ask for help, and improve the care partner’s own quality of life as well as the quality of their relationships.
Research from the pre- and post-tests for the workshops provide the evidence. The care partners report a feeling of increased social support, reduced feelings of depression and anxiety and improved sleep patterns. In addition, they report increased feelings of hope, confidence and a sense of activation to make lifestyle changes to support a positive care partnering experience.
Why do these results matter?
There is an obvious humanistic reason that strengthening the care partner relationship will be beneficial to the entire family system. During a time when families can define their life experiences as hopeful or full of dread, early-stage programs like the Connected Horse offer new opportunities to better cope with the journey ahead with the stages of dementia. We believe that the research we have completed thus far begins to show a trend that participants have indeed gained skills that allow them to stay present, mindful and “be calm” and get a good night’s sleep, all factors that will help them maintain the benefits learned in the program.
The personal, social and economic impacts are staggering. If we can make a small difference we will be doing good work for the entire family.
Our program focuses on experiential learning, engagement, and awareness of roles and behaviors. Traditional equine therapy programs typically focus on emotional healing under a clinical or psychotherapy approach and are supervised by licensed therapists.
The Connected Horse program encourages the use of mature horses who are no longer being used for performance riding. We believe there is a natural and innate connection for the older horses to provide purpose and personal meaning in therapeutic interactions with older adults.
There are 9.2 million horses in the United States. Many of these horses are older. Like people living with dementia, older horses—especially working horses—want to stay engaged in life, to be social, have purpose and continue to work. Through the Connected Horse program, mature horses are helping older people as they share their natural talents.
We are currently measuring the scientific benefits for horses participating in this program through the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. We are developing safety protocols to ensure that horse welfare becomes a critical part of expanding the program.
We know from historical research that horses in their natural and domesticated environments gain confidence and quality of life by being active and engaged. For centuries horses and humans have developed an important collaborative and working relationship together.
Natural horsemanship work as well as research completed on stress show that horses that voluntarily engage in reasonable equine-assisted activities show physical signs of satisfaction including eye contact, nuzzling, close physical presence when approached, cooperative disposition and a relaxed body posture.