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Horse therapy could help people cope with early-onset dementia

Duell and Paula HertelAs 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.

The project is the brainchild of Paula Hertel, Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Elke Tekin, three senior care practitioners and equestrians who work at the Senior Living Consult. For this study they worked with Stanford's Dolores Gallagher Thompson, PhD, and Nusha Askari, PhD, and Jacqueline Hartman at the Stanford Red Barn Leadership Program.

In the pilot study, five individuals and their care partners participated in a three-week workshop. The study measures the workshop’s effect on the participants’ stress levels, their quality of sleep and their ability to relate to and communicate with others. The results will be presented at Stanford’s Annual Community Health Symposium on Jan. 14 and will be used to develop programs that can be implemented throughout the country, including in rural areas where support services are often lacking.

Hertel and Schier Anzelmo told me more about the program and its potential applications in an email interview:

What prompted you to start the Connected Horse Project?

A shared passion is the simple answer. We are practitioners in senior care and know firsthand that traditional models of care are not adequate. We have also experienced the power of the human/horse connection on a personal level.

Why horses? Do you think a program that pairs humans with dogs or cats could work as well or in the same way? 

Many of us smile when we think about our favorite dog or cat, or in my [Paula’s] case, my first pony. Interactions with animals spark emotional memories that stay intact. Horses can be particularly therapeutic for people because they have an innate ability to sense what others around them feel; they depend on the herd for survival.

In the workshop, the equine facilitators guide the participants through activities that showcase the horses’ characteristics and abilities. This helps the participants recognize their own strengths and the power of their relationships with others.

Was there anything unexpected that you learned or observed as participants during first set of workshops?

A pleasant surprise for us was how quickly the participants developed trust with each other. The sense of community and trust was palpable. One participant said that she left with hope and a sense of encouragement; that she could walk this journey and be ok.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest benefits of a program like this helps people living in rural areas where they lack access to organized services for dementia?

All people want to feel connected to a community. They want to feel love, experience a sense of presence and be part of a meaningful partnership. This program encourages just that. There are about 9.2 million horses in the United States and 2 million horse owners. We believe people and their horses can and want to be of service to their communities.

What are your future plans for the project?

We worked with amazing group of Stanford University professionals, volunteers and horses, and with the help of our donors and colleagues in the assisted living industry we made this dream a reality. Our pilot study shows promising results for all participants. Our next steps include looking for additional resources to develop training material, securing additional equestrian sites and securing funding for new programs.

To learn more about the program contact Paula Hertel.

Previously: How horsemanship techniques can help doctors improve their art, Can dogs help diabetic owners monitor glycemic levels? and Psychiatric trained dogs help in the battle of PTSD
Via Palo Alto Online
Photo of Paula Hertel and Duell courtesy of the Connected Horse Project

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