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  • Writer's pictureNancy Griffin

Connected Horse Founders on the Benefits of Unspoken Communication

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Hundreds of individuals impacted by dementia and their care partners deepen relationships through the power of equine-assisted programming



Connected Horse is a nonprofit founded by two senior living professionals and lifelong horse lovers, Paula Hertel and Nancy Schier-Anzelmo, for those impacted by dementia and their care partners. Just celebrating their 8th anniversary, the nonprofit provides equine-assisted workshops driven by research conducted at Stanford University and UC Davis.

 

Today hundreds of participants have gone through the Connected Horse program at no cost, thanks for generous donors and grants. Positive benefits include improved nonverbal communication, less stress and anxiety, greater connection and sense of purpose. . Immersive experiences at partner barns are supplemented with virtual programs at home or in senior communities and day program



Connected Horse commonly gets asked: “Why Horses?" Here are a few good reasons fom Paula and Nancy:

 

Horses evoke memories.

Horses are an integral part of our human history. Connected Horse workshops often trigger people to think about the relationship with horses throughout history, and throughout their lives.  At the start of our workshops, we always ask the question: “What do you think about when you think about a horse?” 


Almost every participant has a story about a relationship with a horse that brings back memories—meeting a pony for the first time, falling off of a horse, riding a mule down the Grand Canyon, watching horses at the racetrack, or spending time on a ranch.


Horses are prey animals.

Horses are sensitive prey animals who rely on their fellow herd members for their safety and survival, and like us, need relationships. Prey animals are good for therapeutic work because they're highly sensitive to human emotions, body language and intentions. They can pick up on subtle cues.


Because horses are so sensitive to their environment, they provide immediate feedback. Are you trustworthy? Are you safe? Participants see how a horse responds to them and how horses interact with each other and their environment. If someone is anxious or tense, the horse may respond accordingly, allowing individuals to observe and become more aware of behavioral patterns. If you are nervous and the horse picks up on that nervousness, somewhere in the back of their brain they’re like something is going on that I should be concerned about and they start to reflect back that nervousness to you. Conversely, if you approach a horse with calm curouisty the horse responds in kind and drops their head and relaxes.


At Connected Horse, participants experience the horses individually and observe the horses in a herd. Our workshops, the horses act as mirrors which gives participants an opportunity to play around with self-regulation and emotional awareness and see how they impact the world around them and how their interactions create a response in the environment.



Horses build trust and confidence.

Interacting with the horses and the group helps to build trust and confidence. We regularly have Connected Horse participants say “I've never felt so accepted. I've never felt so supported.” 


The sheer physicality of a horse has participants take a pause. We love watching the negotiation of mutual respect and leadership unfold when it comes to leading a 1200-pound horse. They don't need words to communicate. They can really be in relationship with each other.


When we survey participants, feelings of increased confidence is one of the top three benefits they report when sharing the experience of the workshops. In the process of horses trusting humans and humans trusting horses, there is magic. The process of developing a bond with a horse requires trust and communication that builds confidence, improves communication skills, and develops a sense of responsibility and self agency.


Horses make us mindful and present.

Working with horses requires individuals to be present in the moment, fostering mindfulness. In our workshops, it’s the care partner who often takes the role of “I have to get this done,” and will approach the horse abruptly or with a task in mind like trying to force lifting the hoof. The horse thinks “this doesn't feel good to me. I'm not in relationship with you,” and they won't lift their hoof.


Care partners and individuals living with dementia are able to step outside of their comfort zones and shed polarized roles as givers and takers. No role is required. There's just you and the horses and new experiences get to flow out of that. Everyone in the program gets to reimagine themselves as a whole person, not just as the role or label that has been placed on them.


We rely too much on the spoken word. As people progress with dementia diagnosis, they lose their verbal skills, called Aphasia, caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls language. Learning how to be in relationship, in negotiation and mutual respect with the horse, Connected Horse participants  learn how to build a relationship and communicate without words.

Horses get us out in nature.

Natural settings can be a powerful mood-booster. Being in a natural environment has multiple positive effects on well-being. There is a whole sensory experience of new sounds and smells, the breeze coming up in the leaves and the horses nickering in the background—all of those things get us out of our head and into our senses and that's where a sense of peace, awareness, compassion and understanding comes from.

Just being in nature provides a peaceful and calming environment that can help reduce the physiological and psychological effects of stress. Spending time in nature has been linked to a decrease in cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress; We see improved moods, increased creativity and more creative problem-solving skills. This is often attributed to the restorative effect that nature has on the brain, allowing for improved cognitive function and a “fresh perspective.” Studies have shown that spending time in green spaces or even just looking at natural scenes can enhance attention and cognitive function.

Horses are great equalizers.

Horses are the great equalizers. Horses don't judge us by what diseases we have or the roles that society has placed on us. Horses deserve to have an expanded role in our society.  Therapeutic opportunities like Connected Horse allow horses, especially retired horses,  to have new purpose while providing a nonpharmacetical benefit to older adults The Connected Horse process allows the human and horse interaction to unfold organically. Lasting positive outcomes for the individuals living with dementia and their care partners have been validated by our research partners from Stanford University and UC Davis.

 

These underserved populations need support more than ever. Over 6 million Americans aged 65 and older are living with Alzheimer's disease, the most prominent type of dementia. Projections indicate that by 2050, the number could reach 13.8 million. Family members and friends often serve as primary caregivers for individuals living with dementia. More than 53 million unpaid caregivers in the United States face challenges related to emotional and physical well-being, financial strain, and balancing caregiving with other responsibilities.

 

Click here to donate or find out how to partner with Connected Horse on equine-assisted programs for your community.

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