Lifting the Grey: Horses’ Positive Healing

Animal therapy is recognised as beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). More recently, studies and word-of mouth reports indicate that non-riding time with horses also eases symptoms of dementia.

We talk with riding centres, carers and family members, and AD professionals to learn more about how these wonderful equine/human interactions make such a positive difference to all participants. And how it can also raise much-needed funds for RDA groups.
Published in RDA magazine Summer 2018.

“My wife Jane woke up crying, and it’s distressing for both of us, and if I get upset in front of her it agitates her. So I said: “It’s Monday (because she never knows what day it is), and we’re going to see Bertie in a minute.” “Really?!” she says. An immediate, positive mood change.”
That’s David talking about his wife Jane’s experiences with unmounted sensory sessions; Jane has early- or young-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
He adds: “You can understand when your brain is dying and you can think but not think properly. It’s so complex, but you realise you’ve got it. And it can’t be treated, so it’s all about wellbeing, that’s the treatment. So she needs to feel good, and what makes her feel good? Interaction with the horses is a major factor of what makes her feel good.”

Unmounted Sensory Session
It all started when, sometime after his wife’s diagnosis, David was at a Memory café near his home “just so I could talk to people. And a girl there suggested taking Jane to the Avon riding centre.”

That was when Kim Langbridge, RDA Coordinator at Avon RDA came into the picture. She explains that a school group’s break left a vacant 45-minute session in the day, which she decided to devote to an unmounted sensory programme.

“We started with participants who couldn’t ride,” explains Kim. “Together with a volunteer (not a coach), with an understanding of horses and who responds with empathy to what the client wants to do.”

That first group included people in wheelchairs, and two women with dementia. One participant (EB) was from a local care home, accompanied by Allison Johnston, a Dementia Navigator with the Dementia Wellbeing Service – North.

She explains: “Previously, I had contacted Kim to see if these visits would be the sort of thing to suit service users, and the minute I spoke to them there was this incredible positivity. And she said it was exactly what they wanted to do, and we set it up.”

Allison picked up EB from the care home and they went to the centre. “EB’s worked with horses all her life, but within one year she’d been moved from her flat to shared accommodation and then very quickly into a nursing home, which was very disorienting. She was interested in visiting the horses,” says Allison. “When we got there, she just immediately connected with the horses, she knows horses so well, and the staff connected with her. She shared stories of working with horses and what she knew about them. And the horses also seemed to really connect with her.”

Because EB doesn’t have any friends or family member for support, Allison spoke with ‘Active Together’ (run by Age UK and supported by Bristol City Council) that matches volunteers to people with dementia. “So now she has a volunteer to take her to maintain this relationship,” adds Allison. “We also made a little book of photos of her with the horses, which she can share with people at the care home, so people looking after her can get a good picture of what she’s like – it gives her a chance to be an expert. She doesn’t really have a memory of being there, but each week she goes, there’s a familiarity, because the centre makes sure she sees the same horse, and the same people supporting. It’s something we hope to do more.”

Kim added: “EB’s advocate noted ‘these sensory sessions appear quite integral to her wellbeing. It is acknowledged that the activity offers a link to her past passion and profession, thereby upholding continuity and individuality in her life. It is promoting her skills and abilities as she reconnects with so many familiar tasks. The sessions also act as an opportunity to leave the nursing home, go out into the community and meet new people, thereby supporting her community presence and building relationships with the riding centre staff and horses. The decision maker might wish to consider all avenues to ensure the sensory sessions can be facilitated, including using volunteers or accessing grants.’ ”
And what about Jane’s experience? Kim says: “They come every two weeks, and meet Bertie. She lights up when she comes in, and is absolutely absorbed. Her husband says it gives meaning to the day’s timetable.”

David adds: “If you ask Jane about the highlight of her week, it’s going to see Bertie. We have four daughters, and a loving family. And the eldest of the twins had a baby four months ago and they came to watch Jane, and there’s a peripheral effect, because if mum is happy and they can see that, it lifts the greyness off their lives, too. So it’s not just limited to me and Jane, the ripple effect is affecting the family positively. I wouldn’t say it would work with everyone, but it certainly works with our family.”

Sharing, Together
A similar story is developing at Cotswolds RDA, where Claire Jenkins, General Manager, is also seeing the positive effect of unmounted sensory sessions: “What a difference it made, and not just for the participants. One family member reduced me to tears as she told me this was the first day out she had had since her husband went into the home. And that she felt safe and they could enjoy doing something together.”

Claire explains the sessions came about all because of Mister Dibbles.
“We were given a pony called Mister Dibbles, and he’s 20 and couldn’t do a full schedule of riding,” says Claire “Now, I’m a big believer in spreadsheets and I was thinking well, if he can’t cover his costs, then we’re not having him. They’re not pets! As well as a charity we are also a business. Then I met him, and he was just so friendly and then we got to thinking how we could do something for people with dementia. And Afternoon Tea with Mister Dibbles just sounded perfect.”

Claire adds that Mister Dibbles developed Cushing’s Disease and went back to his owners, so now it’s ‘Afternoon tea with Mister B,’ another adorable pony.

Jerry Porter, Vice Chairman at Cotswolds picks up the tale: “We were looking for people to trial the Afternoon Tea concept, and as I’m in contact with a local care home that has an entire floor dedicated to people with dementia, we asked if they wanted to do the pilot – and they were delighted. And we then had a request from another care home. So we’ve had two similar but somewhat different experiences. It certainly seems to be something there’s a great enthusiasm and demand for.”

Claire says: “There was this woman, she’d just turned 100 years old and was with her daughter. And she said it was one of the most lucid moments she’s seen her mother have in several years. We gave her the saddle, and she remembered the tack room, and then she went back to a memory where her mother had one of the first Hoovers, and coming home to find her brothers vacuuming the ponies. What made that even more special was the shared experience and memories with a family member. It’s fantastic, and it does go up a level with the family members.” Claire adds that the first one was done as a trial: “so we only charged £5.”

Jerry comments: “It’s blown us away. We’re not unused to the emotion, but this is intense somehow. You see the curtain pulled aside for a second or two when these memories are triggered. The smell of horses, and the leather tack, the evocative smell of hay. Smells seem to short-circuit memory in a way that sight and sound doesn’t do as quickly. And the opportunity to join in, even just to push the wheel chair while the person is leading the horse, so they’re really participating together in the experience.”

He mentions another participant whose father and grandfather had both ridden as jockeys at Cheltenham: “And that’s where we’re based, so Annie was literally on the ground where they were, and that was special. She used to be a superb botanical artist with exhibitions in London. She still paints although she no longer has the same motor skills, and she went back to the home and painted a picture of Bobby, the pony. That she wanted to do that and give it to us was really special.”

The Silver Hour
Over at Kesteven Rideability, Lincolnshire, Karen Thompson has launched a Thursday afternoon equine therapy for adults programme, The Silver Hour, to run through the summer months.

“Our group is to capacity at riding, so we were looking to get new people involved in the group, more footfall without increasing the workload on the horses,” she says.
The programme was designed as an opportunity for seniors to rekindle their love of equines or experience a connection with a horse for the first time, in a safe and supported environment. Activities include learning about equine behaviour, meeting, grooming and leading the horses, and a chance to sit on the horse simulator to learn the basics of riding in a safe environment. The first session involved four residents and their carers from Newton House, a local care home in Grantham.

Karen admits it’s still early days for the group: “We started with care homes, to get it going quickly. I’m hoping we can build up a small group that aren’t yet in care homes, but are in various support groups. It’s been a difficult winter with hard weather so we’re just beginning to get momentum.”

Newton House Activities Co-ordinator Sara Goslin comments: “We emailed Karen because we knew she did disability riding and found out about the new group. So, we mentioned it to few residents and were overwhelmed by the positive response.”

She noted one resident in particular, who “hadn’t wanted to do any activities and even getting her to leave her room was a challenge, and yet when horses were mentioned she responded. Even on the day we weren’t sure if she would go, but she got here and her face just lit up when she saw the horses. It was a very emotional day.”

Kesteven ponies Fudge, Sox and Rio were introduced to the group, to be fussed and stroked. Karen adds: “It was magical watching the reactions, as faces lit up and voices became more animated. Rio loved his mane being combed and Fudge dozed happily as he was brushed. Then it was home-made cakes and tea. There were happy tears as one woman reconnected her love of horses, and a man regaled us with stories of the real War Horses of WW1.”

Karen got funding to run a pilot scheme of 10 sessions. “Irrespective of age or infirmity, I believe that everyone can benefit from this kind of experience. The sessions are tailored to individual requirements, with the help of coaches and volunteers to ensure a safe, productive experience. We’re still in semi-launch, so we’re delighted that Newton House has booked four more sessions because they see the value in it.”

Simple Things
It does seem to be about the simple things. As Jerry comments: “We’ve been agonising how to pitch the offering, what package etc. and then one of the carers said: “There’s no need to overachieve: just coming out and have a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and sitting and watching the lesson is a terrific outing for most of them because they don’t get a lot of that sort of thing. And when you add in the sensory walk and the dogs it becomes really quite special.”

Sara adds that she can see the benefits: “Animal interaction plays such a big part, whether or not people have dementia. Certain residents will see long-term benefits, especially if you have photographs and they can talk about it, and sometimes they’re calmed by it. Perhaps because it’s a different, a happy memory that takes them away from whatever has made them upset. That’s what it’s all about really.”

PHOTOGRAPHS: [Credit: Danielle Longotano Rain Photography]

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