VCOA funds equine therapy program


By Jessica Lyon

VCOA Communications Specialist


Jack has ridden horses since he was five years old. Serving under General Patton in World War II, he worked closely with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria where he helped to save the Lipizzaner horse breed from certain death by starving Russian soldiers. Today, at 95 years old, Jack’s passion for horseback riding remains strong with the help of the riding staff at Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center in Williamsburg, Va.

Dream Catchers hosts Silver Saddles, a horseback riding and grooming program for older Americans suffering from dementia.

Researchers at Ohio State University have found that equine therapy eases symptoms of dementia and other degenerative brain diseases. Previously, anecdotal evidence showed that grooming and riding horses helped adults with dementia improve their quality of life.

The Geriatric Training and Education (GTE) initiative within the Virginia Center on Aging helped to fund a partnership between Dream Catchers and the Riverside Center for Excellence in Aging and Lifelong Health (CEALH) through a grant award. This partnership inspired a series of trainings for the riding staff at Dream Catchers as well as for the staff at four assisted living facilities around the area, which bring residents to participate in the Silver Saddles program each week.

In working with the Silver Saddles program at Dream Catchers, CEALH will conduct research to quantify the results of the program. These training results, made possible by GTE grant funds, will be measured in part by a survey given to participants at the end of each training. Researchers at CEALH have high hopes that the research will indicate an improvement in quality of life when adults suffering with dementia interact with large animals.

Because improvement in quality of life is a difficult subject to measure, some of the qualitative results of CEALH’s research will come from the interaction between residents and staff at the assisted living facilities during time spent away from Dream Catchers.

Tina Thomas, director of programs and services at the at the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Richmond Chapter, has first-hand knowledge of the improvements in quality of life produced by the Silver Saddles program. Having previously worked at Williamsburg Landing, a retirement community served by Silver Saddles, Thomas witnessed direct results of the program.

“One of the doctors at Williamsburg Landing was outspokenly opposed to the Silver Saddles program,” Thomas said. “The doctor told me ‘This is the kookiest thing I’ve ever heard.’”

While it may be an unconventional practice to place 90-year-old men and women on horses for the sake of health and happiness, the results speak for themselves.

“The day we came back from the first program, the doctor was sitting at the front desk filling out paperwork and looked up to see the residents getting off the bus. The doctor told me the looks on the resident’s faces said it all. She had never seen them more engaged,” Thomas said.

It was then that Thomas realized the program’s potential for positive impact. Thomas saw additional benefits of the Silver Saddles program over the next few trips to Dream Catchers.

“There was a man named John who would usually exhibit self-isolating behavior by eating alone in his room most days and not engaging with other residents,” Thomas said. “On the days he visited Dream Catchers, John would come back to Williamsburg Landing and instead of going straight to his room, he’d go into the dining room and want to chat with people. He was engaged.”

Thomas continues to see the benefits of the Silver Saddles program in her current role at the Alzheimer’s Association as part of her duties include training staff members at Dream Catchers about working with older adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. These trainings were made possible by GTE funds awarded by the Virginia Center on Aging at VCU.

“My hope is that [Silver Saddles] could be considered a non-pharmacological intervention for people with Alzheimer’s disease,” Thomas said.

What makes working with horses beneficial for seniors like Jack and John? The question may still be left unanswered, but those at CEALH feel they are getting closer to a conclusion.

“Horses are very in tune with their riders,” said Christy Jensen, director of health services at CEALH and principal investigator for the grant. “They understand that they need to take it slow. They take directions quite well and tend to be very gentle with the people who are riding.”

“There are folks who have worked [at Dream Catchers] for a long time and they aren’t really sure they can put their finger on a theory or why it works, but there is something powerful about the nurturing aspect of the program and having that special relationship with the animal,” Jensen said.

Others involved with the Silver Saddles program have seen an enrichment in the lives of the participants as the novelty of this activity brings a certain rejuvenation to seniors.

“What makes this a great program is the fact that when you are in your 80s and 90s, your excitement about things in life tend to go downhill because there’s less and less that you can do,” said Carol Ivey, a riding instructor at Dream Catchers. “To take someone out of a facility and bring them into this kind of environment is exciting and fun for them.”

Dream Catchers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that specializes in equine-assisted activities and therapies for people with disabilities. Their mission is to improve the quality of life for those individuals with evidence-based therapeutic riding.

“Our youngest participant is aged 4 and our oldest is 104,” said Nancy Paschall, executive director of Dream Catchers. “The entire center is built around the concept that horses have the ability to help people physically, emotionally, cognitively, in ways that other traditional activities don’t.”

The center provides more than 4,000 horseback riding lessons each year with 15 horses and many passionate volunteers in their state-of-the-art facility.

Dream Catchers is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Premier Accredited Riding Center. According to the Dream Catchers website, this prestigious accreditation is shared by less than 25 percent of PATH centers around the world.

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