For years, equine-assisted therapy has been a staple in helping veterans cope with their physical war-related injuries and struggles, their struggles with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and in helping disabled children build physical strength and create emotional connections. Now researchers are turning to horses once more to help those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia conditions.
During an Alzheimer’s caregiver support group meeting, Charlotte Driver came across a flier for horse-involved therapy. Having cared for both her father and father-in-law during their struggles with Alzheimer’s disease, and caring for her mother, also diagnosed with the disease, Driver had no illusions about the disease and its impact on families. So, now that her husband Richard was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a condition that precedes Alzheimer’s, Driver was open to any therapy that might slow the progression of Richard’s eventual cognitive decline.
After nearly 40 years of marriage, Charlotte Driver is confronting one of life’s biggest challenges — losing her connection to her husband, Richard, as he gradually loses his memory. Diagnosed with early onset dementia, it’s only a matter of time before he develops Alzheimer’s disease.
Determined to stave off the disease for as long as possible, the Drivers enrolled in a unique program aimed at harnessing the healing power of horses to improve the quality of life for people affected by dementia and their care partners. They visited the Center for Equine Health (CEH) at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine last fall, along with six other couples, to participate in a research project that grew out of a collaboration with the UC Davis School of Medicine and The Connected Horse Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of all those affected by dementia.
Over the course of three weeks, the Drivers joined the others in five-hour workshops designed to gradually introduce the couples to the horses. For Charlotte, it was an entirely novel experience; she had never touched a horse. But Richard was excited about being around horses again. As a teenager, he helped a neighbor care for his horses.
“They can really read your emotions,” Richard said. “Being around them brought back a lot of happy memories. I’m more conscious of my environment and my emotions while with horses.”
And that’s one of the main goals of the project — helping the patient and care giver get in touch with themselves and each other.
If you ask Richard Driver about the first time he laid eyes on Charlotte,the love of his life, and he lights up.
“When I first saw her … she walked into that church I hit my friend, I said ‘Who is that?’,” Richard said. He remembers every detail of that moment more than four decades ago.
A few more minutes with him, and he’ll tell you story after story about his past.
On the surface it might be hard to believe that Richard is gradually losing his memory.
“Things are changing drastically. He might repeat a lot of things that he doesn’t remember asking me. It becomes disheartening because he’s not the same person that I used to know,” said Richard’s wife Charlotte.
Richard’s been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Doctors will tell you its just a matter of time before he develops Alzheimer’s, and Charlotte becomes his caretaker.
“I didn’t want to believe it at first,” said Richard.
The disease runs in both their families. At one point the couple’s fathers were both cared for at the same facility. The couple now cares for Charlotte’s mother with dementia.
But that doesnt make it any easier for Charlotte to accept her husband of nearly 40 years, might lose his memories with her, even his ability to recognize who she is.
“That does get rough. Yeah. I know that it can happen, and it’s okay. But I just want to be able to deal with it, and I think I will but it’s painful,” said Charlotte.
But the couple isn’t taking Richard’s diagnosis lying down. Their efforts to at least slow down Alzheimers has led them, of all places, to the stables UC Davis’s Equestrian Center.
“The amazing thing about a horse is its a physical and mental experience,” said Claudia Sonder, director of research at the UC Davis Equine Center. Sonder oversees all research projects at the sprawling, 25-acre area that houses close to 200 horse. At any given time, there are about a dozen projects involving the horses.
“Most other programs in the country don’t have a herd like this to train their scientists, to train their veterinarians and to investigate medical problems,” said Sonder.
Despite all the research that happens there, Alzheimer’s and Dementia weren’t among the most obvious topics in which to involve the horses.
“Horses have this innate ability to sense feeling and energy around them and they give you that immediate feedback,” said Paula Hertel, who alongside Nancy Schier Anzelmo created the Connected Horse Project.
Both have worked with horses their whole lives, and spent their professional careers focused on seniors’ health issues like Alzheimers and Dementia.
Between those subjects they drew a connection one not everyone saw at first.
“Yes. We were told a few times, so you’re going to do some crazy horse project?” said Schier Anzelmo.
Most estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association put the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s at more than five million – the majority are over age 65.
In its worst stages Alzheimer’s patients can lose their ability to speak entirely. Working with the horses takes nonverbal communication.
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.