Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel share a lot in common. They have been friends and colleagues since the 90s. They are both educators and well known in the senior living industry. As consultants, they both strive tirelessly to improve assisted living and dementia care. And, they both own and love horses.
They have been able to combine these passions to create the Connected Horse Project (www.connectedhorse.com), a groundbreaking pilot study, scheduled to launch this month, to explore how guided engagement with horses might help people living with dementia as well as those providing care for them. The project is undertaken with the guidance of Stanford University and the Stanford Red Barn Leadership Program.
“We wanted to develop a program to support those with dementia and their care partners – spouses, adult children, other relatives, and friends – as they begin their journey of living with this illness,” Paula said. According to 2015 data from the Alzheimer’s Association, over 5.3 million Americans have a diagnosis of dementia and that number is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next decade.
“Understandably there is a huge push to find a cure,“ Paula said. “But we’ve also done a great job improving early diagnosis. So we have thousands of people labeled with a dementia diagnosis (200,000 of whom are under the age of 65) wondering ‘now what’”?
“As equestrians, we know there’s a very real healing presence about horses,” Nancy said. “If we have a bad day, we just go outside to ‘be’ with our horses; we relax and just feel better. There are in-depth studies that show with horse therapy there’s an almost immediate drop in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”
Paula added, “We thought that equine-guided activities focusing on mindfulness and self-awareness as well as on verbal and nonverbal communication might help.”
Horses are popularly used animals for therapy. They have an ability to work collaboratively and adapt to change. They are prey animals but have survived by cooperating in herds.
Horses also mirror the emotions of people working with them and behave similarly to human beings in social and responsive interactions, so it’s easy for people to connect with them. They respond immediately, which gives direct feedback.
Paula pointed out, “You can’t push a 1200-pound animal around to get it to do what you want. Working with horses provides an easy way for people to understand that force may not be the best approach for getting someone to do something.”
Nancy expanded further, “We thought pairing those with dementia and their care partners with horses could reduce their stress, increase their coping skills, enhance their leadership abilities and offer an outlet for engagement. They, therefore, would be better equipped to deal with the road that lies ahead of them. And, that’s what we’ll be looking for in our pilot study.
If results are positive, the pair hope to make the study into a full research investigation funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and Stanford, as a leader in pioneering new programs, said Nancy.
Nancy and Paula are looking for volunteer participants. Here’s how the project works:
- There is no cost to participate in this program
- No prior experience with horses is required
- Participants do not ride the horses; they engage with the horses from the ground
- Volunteers will be age 70 and younger with a diagnosis of dementia, along with their primary care partner
- Participants can expect to spend a total of 15 hours on the project within a 60-day period:
- 1 hour for initial phone interview,
- 2 hours for barn tour and pre-workshop surveys,
- two 5-hour workshops with the horses,
- 2 hours for post-program phone interview and surveys
Those interested in learning more about the program and participating in the study should complete an inquiry card at connectedhorse.com/contact. The team is actively seeking funds and sponsorships for their project through Go Fund Me / Connected Horse.