A quiet woman who had advocated for the underserved until the effects of her dementia forced her retirement, Maria walks slowly into the barn with her care partner. Axle, a large bay horse, pops his head over the stall door to greet the strangers. Maria approaches Axle, who is at least 10 times her weight.
The workshop facilitator, who knows the power of the human-horse connection, brings them closer together. In only a few steps they are face to face. Axle leans sideways to rest his head on Maria’s shoulder and breathes.
The barn is silent. Maria is motionless. Then she smiles and, for that moment, it is okay that she can no longer speak.
This is the power of The Connected Horse Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by dementia. It was founded by two of CALA’s board members, Paula Hertel with Senior Living Consult, and Nancy Schier Anzelmo with Alzheimer’s Care Associates. We have shared news and information about Connected Horse here on the blog and in the CALA News & Views magazine. And we are happy to share more!
A groundbreaking program that has helped people with dementia by having them interact with horses will launch at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine at the end of this month after a test run at Stanford University.
The veterinary school, the UC Davis School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the nonprofit group Connected Horse will collaborate on a clinical trial, which will pair people undergoing early stage dementia and mild cognitive impairment and their caregivers with horses in the hopes of improving the patients’ demeanor and communication skills.
Not being able to remember things that were once familiar can be frightening, especially for people in their 40s with early onset dementia, said Nancy Schier Anzelmo, a gerontology professor at California State University, Sacramento. As people lose the ability to recall information or perform certain tasks, they may become depressed and anti-social.
“If someone’s on that trajectory, they become more isolated,” Schier Anzelmo said. “They might forget they’re meeting their friends for coffee, and the friends stop calling because they get annoyed. The person living with the disease needs to feel empowered – not that this is a downward trajectory, but that they still have purpose and focus. Maybe that means doing something they never tried before.”
Schier Anzelmo and senior living consultant Paula Hertel helped found the Connected Horse Research Study, a collaboration between Stanford University and the nonprofit group Connected Horse, which was founded to raise money for the study. The goal is to build confidence in people with dementia and improve relationships between them and the loved ones caring for them.
The person living with dementia gets to see what it feels like to care for another being, and a loved one gets a better understanding of the importance of providing care, Hertel said.
“It’s a nonjudgmental, mutual respect with the horses,” Hertel said. “When care partners learn to break down those dynamics for themselves, they also start to become better care partners.”
Developed by Paula Hertel, Founder of Senior Living Consult and Nancy Schier Anzelmo, Principal of Alzheimer’s Care Associates, and piloted in partnership with the Stanford Red Barn Leadership Program, the Connected Horse Project is a guided engagement with horses to “help people living with early-onset dementia and their care partners maintain purpose and confidence as well as continued connection to their current relationships in the community at large.” While it doesn’t use traditional creative pursuits such as painting or poetry, the Connected Horse Project does open up new pathways for communication and connection for participants in much the same way as other creative activities.
A new program conducted at Stanford Red Barn, home to the Stanford equestrian team, offers guided workshops with horses to teach young people with early onset dementia to build confidence, trust and a sense of community.
The second program to use horses to treat the symptoms of dementia, following a similar program in Ohio, the Connected Horse Project was initiated by Paula Hertel and Elke Tekin, co-founders of ElderHub and countless other organizations that provide elder care resources and work toward developing assisted living programs.
Emphasizing a “care vs. cure” approach, the program aims to fill a gap in the treatment of early onset dementia by meeting the need for psychosocial interventions that offer participants an opportunity to achieve a better quality of life while living with the disorder.
As a kid growing up in rural Minnesota, I spent many of my waking hours searching for a reason to be near the five horses that roamed the 40 acres behind our house. Their methodical munching and tail-swishing put me at ease and learning how to ride a 1,200-pound animal that could easily wipe me off on a fence post taught me much of what I know about courage and persistence.
A similar sense of calm, accomplishment and fortitude are among the potential benefits of a new pilot study at Stanford University’s Red Barn called the Connected Horse Project. This project aims to help people learn how to manage the symptoms of early-stage dementia through a series of workshops where they participate in supervised activities with horses.
Can horses teach people with early-stage dementia useful lessons about how to cope with their disease?
That’s the question behind a pilot project at Stanford University’s Red Barn, which recently hosted five early-onset dementia patients along with their caregivers for a series of workshops with horses.
Foreseeing a tidal wave of dementia cases with the aging of the baby boomers, organizers hope to test whether equine therapy can counteract the feelings of isolation and hopelessness often experienced by newly diagnosed patients. If successful, the approach could be replicated in stables and barns across rural America, where there can be a shortage of organized services for families coping with dementia.
The Connected Horse Project is the brainchild of Paula Hertel and Nancy Schier Anzelmo, both equestrians who have worked for decades in the senior services industry.
If I asked you to picture a horse, it is most likely you would also picture a rider…a jousting knight, a cowboy riding off into the sunset, a jockey circling the racetrack. Horses have long been our partners in work, travel, play, and creative pursuits. Now a new pilot program in the Bay Area draws upon this partnership to help those living with dementia.
According to a press release, the Connected Horse Project is “a a groundbreaking pilot study to explore how guided engagement with horses might help people living with dementia and their care partners.”
Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel are colleagues and friends. They are both well known in the senior living industry where they have worked as consultants for about 20 years. They both have a passion to improve assisted living and dementia care. They also both love and own horses. These combined enthusiasms led them to create a new joint endeavor, which they’ll launch later this month – The Connected Horse Project.