Hold your horses: equine work may prove healing for people with dementia

CAT TAYLOR / AGGIE
CAT TAYLOR / AGGIE

How horse grooming can help dementia patients, caregivers and horses themselves

Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease. Couple this with the fact that it is also the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and it’s understandable why UC Davis researchers are conducting studies to help better the lives of those diagnosed with dementia-related diseases.

Paula Hertel and Nancy Scheir Anzelmo are the co-founders of Connected Horse, a nonprofit organization that partnered with UC Davis’ School of Medicine and UC Davis’ Veterinary School to explore the therapeutic benefits of having people with dementia, as well as their care partners, interact with horses.

Hertel and Anzelmo first developed and tested the cooperative studies at Stanford University. After their informational session which took place on Oct. 31, they are planning to hold another pilot study at UC Davis on Nov. 7 and 14. Despite common assumptions, participants will not be riding the horses. Instead, they will be spending time with, grooming and getting to know the animals.

“[The challenge is] how do you work collaboratively with a horse and be clear in your non-verbal reactions,” Hertel said. “That’s really where we see a lot of learning in terms of strengthening the relationship [between the participant and the caregiver], because we as humans rely so heavily on our verbal communication. When that gets compromised, we’re often unaware of what our body language is telling us.”

The study is unique in that it aims to monitor not only the participant with dementia, but also his or her caregiver and the relationship between the two. Anzelmo and Hertel believe that the diagnosis not only affects the person who received it, but the entire support network of that person. For this reason, the researchers place a heavy importance on relationship building, which is clarified by the presence of a horse.

Horses are herd as well as prey animals, which means that they have to be able to pick up cues from other horses in their herd while being attuned to their environment. Therefore, a horse will tend to mirror another horse’s behavior, a quality that is also seen between horses and humans. Anzelmo and Hertel plan to use this mirroring ability in horses to promote introspection with the participants.

By functioning as a mirror, the horses can inform participants about their body language, a tool that has proven useful in other therapeutic environments.

“The horses are really the teacher in these workshops,” Anzelmo said. “They’ve been very healing in many populations from traumatic brain injury, to veterans, to children with autism and physical disability and even prisoners […] so we know there’s a very strong therapeutic model.”

Dr. Sarah Tomaszewski Farias is a professor of neurology at UC Davis who conducts research at the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Farias is also the principal investigator on the project, a job that involves consulting, reaching out to prospective participants and analyzing the outcomes of the study.

“Right now, in terms of the medication we have available to treat Alzheimer’s disease, it’s pretty limited,” Farias said. “There are a couple of medications that are approved by the FDA to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but they really just slow the disease process. [The clinics are] not something that would take the place of those medications. [They] would be something in addition to medication, but really it’s geared more toward improving quality of life.”

Claudia Sonders is the director for The Center of Equine Health, as well as a professor at the UC Davis Veterinary School. She is in charge of the herd of horses that will be used for the study.

“For this particular project, what we’re looking for are horses that are accustomed to interacting with humans that are naturally calm and quiet and patient and that we can rely upon to be careful around humans,” Sonders said. “[We tend to use] geriatric horses who have a lot of world experience.”

In addition to providing data about the human participants, the study will also provide data about the equine counterparts.

“We’re also working with the Computer Science Department to train computers to recognize the equine face,” Sonders said. “It’s part of a greater project, which is a pain-detection project in horses. This pilot data will help the computer learning team get the computer to recognize the equine face.”

While interacting with the participants of the study, Sonders hypothesizes that the horses will be more calm, which can provide valuable facial recognition data. In general, Sonders plans to use the pain-detection program to help diagnose geriatric horses with problems associated with old age. The program’s creation is especially pertinent because horses evolutionarily tend to hide when they feel pain to avoid looking weak in front of a predator.

“If you have a horse that’s in pain, and it’s standing in its stall and you have a camera on it, and there are no people around, that horse will probably be in the corner, its head will be down, its ears will be back, it’ll have facial tension,” Sonders said. “When you walk in and you open that stall door, that horse is going to perk up, it’s going to put its ears up, it’s going to walk over, it’s going to interact with you. It doesn’t want you to know that it doesn’t feel well.”

While the pilot studies that Connected Horse is planning will help the creation of this program, Sonders said that it also gives geriatric horses who are past their athletic prime a purpose in society.

“It’s really important that a geriatric horse have a place in society because in many cases when a horse becomes too old to be physically athletic, it becomes a dilemma for what we should do with that horse,” Sonders said. “Some people put them to sleep if they’re no longer useful [or often, if] people don’t want to put a horse to sleep, the horse will end up in a rescue or in a situation where they’re living out their life at rest, and sometimes that can go well for them and sometimes that does not.The idea that we could take a public horse and potentially have it be a public asset is really exciting.”  

As for the future, Hertel and Anzelmo hope to both continue the growth of the program at Connected Horse by holding another workshop in the spring, as well as help to get similar programs off the ground in other places.

“We don’t want to just develop this for Connected Horse,” Hertel said. “We want to really share our knowledge and our curriculum with those who can use it. Whether they’re one person that has a small barn somewhere or a therapeutic riding center that’s been serving children but now wants to start serving elders too. We really see ourselves as a resource so that we can grow this option beyond the research.”

For more information on Connected Horses’ research and how to get involved, visit its website at connectedhorse.com.

Written by: Meral Basit — science@theaggie.org