According to a late 19th-century adage, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” This, essentially, is the basis of therapy offered through workshops by Connected Horse, an effective human and animal interaction program that provides inimitable benefits both to those diagnosed with early-stage dementia and their care partners.
Connected Horse workshops are nonriding activities that center on liberty exercises, generally defined as the practice of meaningful connection exercises designed to build trust with the horse.
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Never have such programs been more relevant. The World Health Organization reports that there are 50 million people with dementia worldwide, with 10 million new cases each year. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, accounting for 60% to 70% of cases. The Alzheimer’s Association reported in 2019 that an estimated 5.8 million Americans have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Something special happens when people come to the barn, says Paula Hertel, MSW, Connected Horse cofounder, program director, and board member, a specialist in programs supporting older adults, care partners, and professionals.
“They start to become aware of all these new sounds, smells and, of course, the horses. The horses welcome them into their space. They begin to relax and enjoy being together.”
Hertel and Connected Horse cofounder Nancy Schier Anzelmo, MSG, a dementia care specialist and faculty member of the gerontology department at California State University Sacramento, have worked together in elder care services for nearly 30 years.
They sought to create an innovative approach to assist people with early-stage dementia and their care partners and had seen the power of the bond between humans and horses in their own lives. “We both own horses,” Hertel says. “We researched the benefits of equine-assisted activities in other populations and saw similarities in the needs of people living with dementia and their care partners.”
As truly modern researchers, Hertel, Schier Anzelmo, and other Connected Horse partners have relied on YouTube to communicate their mission.
In a recently shot video published in November 2019, Hertel shared the twofold goal of Connected Horse: to give people who are affected by dementia an opportunity to be together and experience something new; and to move away from the pharmaceutical approach to treating dementia.
Participants with horses in nature, she says in the video, learn to be “in the moment.” Dementia, she says, “is going to be a part of their life, but it isn’t going to overcome their identity.” The participants shown in the videos are obviously deeply moved by being in a Connected Horse workshop and experiencing this simple, hope-giving environment.
Connected Horse workshops are nonriding activities that center on liberty exercises, generally defined in horse-enthusiast circles as the practice of meaningful connection exercises designed to build trust with the animal.
They’re often based on our human observations of how horses communicate with one another within their herds. The sessions are pleasant, low-pressure interactions that encourage people to associate with a horse in a mindful manner.
Hertel explains that workshops begin with breathing exercises and sensory walks. These simple routines help participants “get out of their heads and let go of all the lists and tasks of the day,” she says. “Then we move into exercises with the horses; first observing the horses, then greeting them over a fence, and moving into haltering, grooming, leading, and at liberty work.”
The program is unique in that it is a dyad model, Hertel says, referring to the pairing of a person with dementia and a care partner who both participate equally. The youngest care partner in the workshops was a daughter in her mid-20s who worked with her mother, who was in her early 50s; the oldest participant was 94 years old.
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Press release by UC Davis Veterinary Medicine - article Therapy: Equine Therapy for Dementia By Michele Deppe