The UC Davis Center for Equine Health has partnered with The Connected Horse Project and the UC Davis School of Medicine to benefit people with early-stage dementia and their care partners (usually a spouse, friend, or family member) through a series of therapeutic workshops with horses. These equine-guided workshops have been shown to reduce stress and improve the quality of life for both patients and their care partners. This work is an example of the One Health initiative to solve complex problems that affect humans and animals while gathering valuable scientific data.
Horses have evolved over millions of years as prey animals to be highly in tune with their environment. They survive in the wild by reading and reacting to cues from their surroundings and their herd mates. They seek calm confidence and look for leadership, which makes them a great social mirror as they will react to humans and reflect back the energy of the interaction. Horses can teach humans confidence, self-awareness, and self-control. Since horses live outside, movement and the stimulation of the environment are added bonuses to the interactions.
The United States is home to more horses than any other nation, but their use has transitioned away from historical roles in war and transportation primarily to recreation. As a result, familiarity with horses among the general public is at an all-time low. Today, many horses live into their 30s, and as they age, they become less suitable for recreational use. However, their experience and mental maturity make them much safer for interaction with people who have little to no experience around horses. This project seeks to harness the amazing social benefits of the horse-human interaction while also giving older horses useful roles in modern day society. The benefits of horse-assisted therapy have been well-documented for autistic children, children with physical disabilities, victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and in prisoner rehabilitation programs.
The project has enrolled more than 60 participants, with ages ranging from 24-92 (patients and care partners). Results have shown clear improvements in depression scores and quality of life assessments in both patients and caregivers.
The Connected Horse Dementia program is based on a coaching engagement model validated through research at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis.
The curriculum focuses on 1) relationship building, 2) self-compassion and awareness 3) leisure and community engagement.
These workshops help care partners and patients with dementia diagnoses learn how to focus on the present, be aware of their own responses, self-regulate and release roles. In addition to learning skills, participants experience hope, increased self-confidence and the joy of being together.
The workshops include therapeutic engagement activities with horses, discussion groups and skills development using mindfulness-based practices, family systems approach, and experiential learning opportunities. The facilitators use cues found in typical herd behavior, including the horses’ innate abilities to mirror participants’ emotions/energy, and the natural environment to support the multi-sensory responses. The equine activities include four over-the-fence interactions, grooming, leading, and watching horses in pastures.
The first research project at Stanford University used a pre/post-test design with standardized measures of stress, burden, mood, and social support for patients and care partners. Quantitative and qualitative findings from 26 participants indicated significantly increased positive perception of social support, greater reciprocity, awareness, upliftedness and appreciation of one another.
A follow-up collaboration at the UC Davis Center for Equine Health engaged an additional 16 pairs (N=32) with retired horses, extending the same protocol used at Stanford. Results indicated significant positive change scores in the social support scale (MSPSS) and decrease in depression scores (measured by BDI II). Early analysis of the qualitative data supports trends for improved mood, greater reciprocity, awareness and appreciation of the dyad relationship.
Case Study (story)
Mrs. D is a care partner for her husband and mother with dementia. During the workshops, she wanted to find focus and meaning to her life situation. She found the answers singing to a horse who was upset because another horse left the paddock.
She wasn’t singing on key, she didn’t know all the words. It didn’t matter. The horse came up to her, lowered his head and calmed down. Her internal desire was to slow down and be present, enjoy being with the horse and her husband. The horse responded. After this experience, she realized that she and Mr. D could still stay connected and that they still had the gift to help others.
She now wants to share her experience with others. She and her husband traveled to the International Dementia Action Alliance Conference and also told their story on a PBS special on dementia. Mrs. D describes her participation with The Connected Horse as the catalyst to give her and her husband the clarity and energy to act. Her husband states that the horses taught him how to better communicate and to have the courage to fight this disease. Since the workshops, he has made significant changes in his life – he is exercising, he became a vegetarian and he takes time to appreciate the positives in his life. They are traveling, enjoying each day together, and are both determined to fight this disease.