Equine Therapy supports Virginia seniors with dementia with Simple Changes
Painting is not compulsory in this horse-based learning program, but it is one of the many ways participants are taught to interact with horses, with the aim of stimulating their mind and body. Since 2017, the Simple Changes Therapeutic Riding Center in Mason Neck, Virginia, has partnered with Goodwin Living, a senior living and healthcare facility in Alexandria, to introduce residents of its barn to residents with cognitive impairments and anxiety.
One roommate is 85. The other is 27. Such arrangements are increasing.
Up to six people participate at a time in the four-week sessions, which also include identifying, grooming, feeding, leading, discussing horse literature, writing poetry and haiku, and making horse treats. The collaboration began when Barbara Bolin, a social worker at Goodwin House Alexandria and a self-proclaimed horse person, reached out to Corliss Wallingford, executive director of the non-profit organization for equine therapy.
“Corliss and I believe that horses are magical and can fix almost anything,” Bolin said.
Wallingford insists the benefits are more scientific than magical. Studies show that animal-assisted activities are associated with increased life satisfaction and reduced depression in older adults, including people with and without dementia or cognitive impairment.
“Horses are really good reflections of what we bring to the situation,” Wallingford said. “As prey, they react in a certain way. It’s very nonjudgmental and very in the moment.”
The organization, which serves people of all ages with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities, has five full-time horses and a sixth in training. To function safely in a therapeutic setting, they must be able to handle situations such as hearing a loud noise or encountering a wheelchair or walker without being startled. Some participants can ride the horses, with assistants walking alongside to spot them, but visitors from Goodwin cannot.
The therapy is beneficial socially, physically and emotionally, Wallingford said.
“When you can’t walk and get out of your wheelchair and sit on a 1,200-pound animal and drive it where you want it, that’s empowering,” she said.
For Goodwin residents, boarding a bus and seeing a change of scenery is a palpable sense of excitement.
“I had Barbara say, after a long chat with someone, ‘What did she say? She never speaks in the facility,'” Wallingford said.
After a session, participants with advanced dementia will talk about the horses and often ask to be returned, Bolin said. “Those times of engagement can keep a person from feeling isolated, lonely or upset,” she said. “The resident gets out of his illness for a while.”
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On a sweltering day last week, three seniors from Goodwin House Alexandria sat in the barn’s indoor riding arena while Wallingford guided them through gentle gymnastics.
“So the first thing we do when we get on a horse is feel our butt,” she said.
“What will you do if I can’t find it?” joked Sarah McGaughy, 80, a former Wall Street financial analyst.
“I’ll love you the same way,” Wallingford assured her.
They moved their feet up and down. “On the bottom of the chair, feet on the floor, back and forth, arms stretched out, back and forth, back and forth,” Wallingford called. They made angel wings. They made mummy arms. “Feel like you’re getting up. Squeeze the weight. Feel the ground beneath you. … Look at all those riders! Isn’t that the best thing?”
The group passed riding crops around, and Wallingford showed them how a stirrup worked.
“So,” she said, “before we take a pony out to play, we’re going to talk about what horses eat.”
“Horse meat?” said McGaughy.
Wallingford wrinkled his nose. “No thank you.” Horses are herbivores, she told them. “They eat constantly, and if they don’t, their teeth grow too much.”
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Assistants brought out hay, an apple, and a carrot, and Wallingford grabbed a handful of fresh grass from outside the barn door. She held it out to Eliff, who bowed his head and opened his mouth as if to bite.
“No, I don’t want you to eat anything. I just want you to touch it,” Wallingford said.
They passed hay around to see how it smelled. “Don’t eat it,” said Eliff’s son Jack. His father promptly opened his mouth. But he smiled. And that made Bolin cry.
“It’s so exciting because it’s about communication,” she said. “I wish everyone could see him. Because people are being medicated. It’s nice to see that part of him.”
Some residents experience what Bolin describes as “skin hunger,” which petting the horses can alleviate. “It’s the absence of touch,” she said. “When someone is separated from their family, they don’t get hugs.”
Family members who attend the visits are sometimes shocked by the reactions of their loved ones, Bolin said. “You can see there’s still a kind of memory reservoir,” she said. “Corliss will give you a brush, and what do you do? They brush the horse. Your family member sometimes gets very emotional when they see their parents bonding.”
Kathleen Pepper, whose father, Donald Pepper, 88, attended the program, said it opens it up. “He’s a lot more receptive after seeing the horses because he wants to tell you what the horses did,” she said.
Donald Pepper formed a special bond with a retired Philadelphia hansom cab horse. “He and Yogi just bonded really, really well,” his daughter said. “He was really looking forward to it when Yogi was there.”
After Yogi died, he drew a picture of the horse, which now hangs framed near the horse stalls.
Families pay for residents to participate in the program. Goodwin has applied for grants to expand the program to other assisted living facilities and to support people who cannot afford it.
Each session adapts to the interests of the participants. With one group, “I was talking about my love of horse literature, and everyone had a horse book that they loved,” Wallingford said. They discussed “Black Beauty” and “The Black Stallion”.
In last week’s group, Wallingford produced four model horses she had owned for half a century and bought on childhood trips to the Museum of Industry and Science in Chicago. “I would go straight to the gift shop for the horses,” she said her and recalled her childhood obsession. “I was wearing brown tights and white bobby socks and I was galloping around the house.”
Holding up the models, she pointed out their markings and explained the history behind the looks of some horses bred for “flashy” colors. Then three live horses were brought into the room and she asked the participants to match them to the models.
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Eliff tapped a model Palomino and pointed to Stetson. He tapped a model pinto and pointed to Stella, a black horse with white markings.
Then it was time to paint. Posie, a bay mare, was led to McGaughy, who is using a wheelchair. She reached out to touch the horse’s flank and beamed with a smile.
Vivian Coda, Supervisor of Therapeutic Recovery at Goodwin House Alexandria, handed her a foam brush and some paint. “Can you give him a few points?” she said.
“Does he like orange?” McGaughy asked. She dabbed tentatively. “Let’s do some polka dots.”
A few yards away stood Anne Withers, 82, a former computer programmer, drawing a red infinity symbol on Stetson’s right shoulder. “You’re such a nice guy,” she told him. “Look at how patient he is. That really inspires me.”
She added a green outline, then cocked her head and tried to think of a title.
“Just call it ‘eyes,’ I don’t know — or maybe ‘sunglasses,'” she said. “Such a beautiful horse.”
“You have such a friendly tone in your voice when you talk to him,” Bolin said.
“Do I have to?” said Withers. “How can you not feel like that? When I approach an animal like that, I start to love it.” Her eyes glittered. “How can you not?”
On the other side of Stetson, Eliff frowned at his purple “H.”
“No, no, I don’t want to paint it,” he explained. Instead, he started petting the animal.
“I’d like to step on it and stand here,” he said softly, making the motion to mount the horse. He kept Stetson in hand. “It feels good.”
“So you don’t want to paint it?” asked Jack Eliff.
“No, no, I just, I just want to make him feel good,” his father said. He stroked the horse a little more and smiled.
“Good boy, good boy, yes, good boy. He says, ‘Someone is all around me.’ Yes. That’s a good boy. Yes.”