When diagnosed with dementia, people ask, "Now what?" said Paula Hertel, co-founder of Connected Horse, who has worked for the last 25 years to improve senior care systems.
They might decide to go down a path of despair or they might decide to take action, she explained, and this is where Connected Horse comes in. The program brings people newly diagnosed with dementia together in nature with horses, along with their care partners, benefiting all of them.
"The horses want to be in relationship with us; they are not concerned with diagnoses, titles or roles," Hertel said.
Hertel and Nancy Schier Anzelmo, a dementia care specialist, began the equine program as a research project with Stanford University and UC Davis in 2015.
"Nancy and I have known each other for 22 years," Hertel said. "As we got more seasoned in our careers, we wanted to find more creative ways to engage with people who are aging."
Every 65 seconds someone in the United States develops dementia, and they wanted a new approach that did not entail pharmaceuticals. The two women are also "horse people" and well knew that horses can mirror people's emotions.
"The emotional memory is the last thing to leave them," Hertel said. "If we can spark a sensory or emotional memory, they remember the emotion and sensory connection to the event."
The two-hour weekly workshops have six to 10 people and typically last three to four weeks. First they meet in a group with the facilitator and talk about living in the moment. Then they take a sensory walk to observe their rural surroundings.
The participant and care partner start slowly with the horses, interacting with them over the fence. The facilitator and a trainer always remain nearby for safety.
"This is oftentimes such a new experience for both the person with the diagnosis and the caregiver," Hertel explained. "It's a level playing field -- the difference goes away because the horse doesn't identify you in any way."
"The trust and acceptance is amazing," she added. "There is this sense of relief when you feel like you are understood and you feel like what you are going through is normal."
"It re-engages them with themselves, with each other and puts them next to this amazing animal that has so much to offer," UC Davis veterinarian Claudia Sonder, a board member, said in a video on the website.
She also noted that the program gets people out of their homes and into a rural environment.
"There's this massive horse that is a beautiful animal that is gentle and kind," Hertel said. "It's a really intimate experience that is beautiful."
Horses, who are prey animals in their natural environment, are wired to be super sensitive to their environment, she explained, noting that horses have long interacted with humans, in wars, plowing fields, for transportation. This is a new way of engagement, and it gives horses purpose when they can no longer participate in shows or dressage.
Hertel and Anzelmo also felt it was important to develop a program that kept the newly diagnosed person and the care partner together.
"From the beginning to the end, there was significant reduction in anxiety and improved sleep," Hertel said.
Feedback has been especially good from the care partners.
"I realized that I was so angry, angry at the disease, at my husband, at everything. I remember looking into that horse's eyes and I just let go of all that anger," said a care partner named Carolyn. "Even two years later, it's gone, I just feel gratitude for the time I had with my husband."
"We want people who have a diagnosis of dementia to be activated to fight and to keep living," Anzelmo said. "If this program can help them stay activated then we are providing an incredible gift."
Connected Horse is running programs in the Tri-Valley in August, on Johnston Road at Five Star Equestrian Center and Three Horse Farm. To learn more, sign up for a workshop, or make a donation, visit www.connectedhorse.org, call Judy at 708-0067, or email [email protected] There is no fee but donations are gratefully accepted.
"An important part of the mission is to have as many people have access to this program as possible," Hertel said. "We work with foundations and hold fundraisers with people that really understand the importance of the human/animal bond."
A dementia diagnosis is not the end of a person's life, she emphasized.
"We wanted to activate people to say this is part of who you are -- and it's part of your journey as a family -- but don't give up."