Horses that help soothe dementia patients and caregivers
By Lou Fancher
In the fragile, nonverbal space shared by Jim Frane and a gelding named Dakota, the interaction is profound, the communication magical. Horse and man are one sensory experience; the one, stroked, the other, stroking.
Asked at Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center in Orinda what he has derived from grooming Dakota’s mane, the Orinda resident said, “Everything.” Nearby, his wife of 56 years, Tré Frane, relaxes, a smile erasing the worried furrow from her brow.
The couple, in their 70s, are participating in Connected Horse’s “Equine Guided Workshops for People Living with Early Stage Dementia and Their Care Partners.” The four-week, 2 ½-hour workshops have as their goal a community embedded extension of the nonprofit’s programs and research. Participants led by trained equine handlers and expert facilitators engage in grooming, leading and interacting with horses in an open paddock. No riding is included in this no-cost program; the emphasis is on therapeutic activities, stress reduction, multisensory awareness and more.
Connected Horse is a Bay Area nonprofit that offers human-animal programs and facilitator training and conducts research. The workshops for older adults with dementia and their care partners is a collaboration with Stanford University and UC Davis. Designed to measure health benefits and develop project curriculum, evidence from an earlier pilot study at Stanford showed improvements in participants’ stress levels, sleep, desired behaviors and communication.
Facilitator Liz Williams said participants find immediate acceptance with horses. The powerful connections leave her struggling to describe them, but having witnessed people with dementia communicate effectively without words in the presence of a horse, she suggest that quiet observation explains everything.
Indeed, watching Suze Peters and her mother Janet Katz, 81, at the workshop, it seems a mysterious but unmistakable spell is cast. “I thought about why I let other things take over my life,” Peters said in an interview a week after cleaning the hooves of Teddy. “I haven’t been around horses for 30 years and I loved it. I even got my mom to pet Teddy,” said Peters, of San Jose.
About touching the 20-year old gelding, Katz, 81, broke a long silence to say, “It was wonderful. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Connected Horse co-founder Paula Hertel said photos taken at the workshop later remind people of the fluid, emotional reactions they felt while working with the horses. “For people used to only receiving care, this process reverses that. They become the givers of care. The roles of caregiver and cared-for melt away.”
During feedback sessions introduced by Williams, she reminded participants the workshop is not a class. ”Whatever happens to you is exactly right,” she said. Care partners expressed delight, new awarenesses and appreciation for the comfort brought by the slow-paced activities and nonjudgmental atmosphere.
“I wonder if Dakota will recognize Jim next week,” said Frane, allowing her thoughts to drift from concerns about her husband’s dementia to the memory of a horse. In an interview two weeks later, she said, “This benefits both people because this caretaking job requires 24/7, high alert. The change of pace makes me feel calmer. I know from knowing Jim for 56 years that he’s content. It’s relaxing to watch him relax.”
Xenophon instructor Linda Parsons recalled a husband and wife briefly separated during the workshop. “When they were together, she was constantly touching him to reassure him. I could see the connection. When she was petting the horse, I saw her hesitate to have her own experience. The moment she released from that, I saw her take a breath — entirely for herself.”
On the Connected Horse website, information includes facts from the Alzheimer’s Association in 2015: More than 5.3 million Americans have a diagnosis of dementia. The number is expected to grow 40 percent by 2025. A summary from the equine study project reads, “Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops dementia.” Non-clinical support programs with scientific, evidence based underpinnings therefore, hold special relevance in communities and local neighborhoods, according to Hertel.