Longtime California friends Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel were already specialists in elder care — and both avid equestrians — when they developed a bold idea. They wanted to combine their unique interests to improve the lives of people facing dementia. The result from these friends, after a great deal of study, is Connected Horse, a series of facilitated workshops aimed at helping early-stage dementia patients and their care partners experience what the women call a horse’s healing presence.

“As equestrians, we know there’s a very real healing presence about horses,” Anzelmo wrote on their blog. “After a bad day, all we have to do is go out in nature, ‘be’ with our horses, relax, and just feel better. There are in-depth studies of the effects of equine work on the stress hormone cortisol, mostly with adolescents, which show [that] with horse therapy, there’s an almost immediate drop in cortisol levels.”

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The connection. Horses are known for their massive presence and their intuition. People who work with horses claim to feel a type of nonverbal communication about emotions that is rare. Amsterdam-based horse trainer Marijke de Jong is often quoted, “We will never have to tell our horse that we are sad, happy, confident, angry, or relaxed. He already knows — long before we do.”

“They’re so big and overpowering,” said Charlotte Driver of Garden City, New York. She and her husband, Richard, who are featured in the video above, have been through the pilot program.

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“I sort of felt intimidated. But after going through the program, I felt more at home,” she told LifeZette. “And that’s how I feel with this dementia — it’s overwhelming, like a monster. But because I know more about it, I feel more confident we’re able to handle whatever comes our way. And that was the connection.”

The potential. Data from the Alzheimer’s Association show that over 5.3 million Americans have been diagnosed with dementia. More than 200,000 of those are early-onset cases, where symptoms appear in patients under age 65. A 40 percent increase in diagnosis is expected as the baby-boom generation ages.

Participants showed improvement in every category and reported a sense of social support, better sleep, and decreased anxiety and depression.

The first underlying research for the dementia project was facilitated with the Stanford University School of Medicine and its Red Barn Leadership program. It focused on measuring stress, anxiety and depression. Participants showed improvement in every category and reported a new sense of social support, better sleep, and decreased anxiety and depression.

During the workshops, participants observe horses, are safely introduced to them, and may also groom and lead them. Facilitators use group exercises to help the patients and their caregivers learn to be more aware, relax, and self-regulate their responses.

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The difference. “Horses have a sense of your feelings. And if you’re not relaxed, they won’t relax or approach you,” Richard Driver told LifeZette. “I became more relaxed, aware of where I was, and really just appreciated being alive.”

He added that the program and the horses themselves taught him how much more aware he might want to be of the precious time he has with his wife and of their own interactions as they work through his diagnosis together.

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“Our care partners and people living with dementia tell us they are so happy to be doing something new and positive — as equals,” Hertel said. “The [separate] roles of caregiver and ‘person with a disease’ go away. Each has a unique experience and are able to share it together.”

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A fourth study began at the University of California, Davis, at the end of April. Looking ahead, organizers aim to offer facilitator trainings and workshops throughout the country so that these types of engagement programs can be offered to others.

“This is a bad disease, but it’s part of life and we can embrace it in the best way we know how. We want to share this with other people,” said Charlotte Driver.

“They enjoy the work,” Hertel added of the horses. “During the last workshop, one of the horses was anxious and pacing in the stall. A participant went up to the stall and began singing to the horse. The horse dropped her head and just relaxed — and so did the participant.”

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Hertel added: “It was beautiful.”

Pat Barone, MCC, is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.