Equine Therapy at Meadowood started as a six-week pilot program “because we didn’t really know whether the residents would be interested,” said Becky Anhorn, Meadowood’s Director of Fitness and Wellness.
Well, the residents were not only interested, they were ecstatic.
“When we developed this program, we didn’t really fathom what the outcome was going to be,” continued Becky. “It was a new program, we just thought it would be fun for the residents. It has far exceeded our expectations. It’s few and far between that you find a program that just blows your mind.”
“There was an expectation we had going in that it would be a good activity, but it turned into an emotional journey that impacted both the family and the residents,” she said.
Eileen Joseph, Meadowood’s Certified Dementia Professional, who created the program with Becky, agreed. “For me, working as I do with people living with dementia, it had to be one of the most heartwarming experiences I’ve had in my career,” she said.
How the Equine Therapy Program Works
After an assessment process, four residents, three from memory care and one living in our independent community, were chosen to participate along with their family members. The eight participants, along with Becky, Eileen and other team members, visited Fun-E Farm T.O.O. in Gilbertsville, PA, weekly for six weeks.
Our trip each week began on the bus, and it soon became clear that socialization was an important part of the program. Once arrived, the farm’s instructor, Holly Schaefer, laid out a structured plan for each visit.
“She brought the horses out, people kissed and hugged, and polished saddles. Demonstrations provided all manner of harnessing, brushing, braiding manes, along with identifying various types of horses. The farm’s history of each purchase, their ages, their family lines, etc. proved to be a fascinating part of the time together. With no hesitation noted, the residents walked with the horses, groomed them, fed them, cleaned and mucked the stalls. With each visit a different aspect of horse care captivated all. “On Halloween they decorated the horses. Not only did we get an opportunity to work with the horses, we were able to visit the animal barn with barn cats, goats, sheep and alpacas.”
Each visit offered an educational component. “The learning piece of it was amazing,” Becky said. “They would talk about the horses, learn about their histories, and whether they were rescued.”
The Story of Fun-E Farm T.O.O.
“Fun-E-Farm T.O.O is designated to suit all needs, it really is a teaching farm, a perfect fit for Meadowood, We’re so thankful for them!” Becky explained.
A Former Equestrian’s Story
Eileen was particularly moved by one resident’s story. “She was an equestrian during her early life and her excitement was palpable on each visit. “The first day when we entered the stables, she just started crying — it was familiar to her. She was heard to say “Oh my God, the smell alone, I am so excited.’ She didn’t miss a beat, she walked in with no fear and kissed the horses. She was given a shovel and a pail — and effortlessly mucked out the stalls. She never thought twice — she knew how to braid the manes, how to pick up the brushes — as though it were yesterday.”
When residents with dementia have experiences, short term memory recall is often not available. But the memories of the equine therapy program seemed to be more vivid and lasting.
“We went to the farm on Tuesdays. When I saw residents on Friday at times they remembered me and identified me as someone who went to see the horses with them,” Becky said. “They’d say, ‘It’s so good to see you, I can’t wait to go back and see the horses.’”
A Few Words From Our Families
After the program, Becky and Eileen were inundated with emails from family members. In their own words, here are some highlights of their experiences.
Rebooting Interest in Life
“… I can’t come up with a word to summarize what this meant to our mom and family. It was everything!” said one family member. “In the moment, it was seeing Mom energetic, excited, focused, social. In the long term, it seems to have rebooted her interest in life. I don’t have proof that it improved her memory, but I can tell you that during the six weeks there was not a day that she couldn’t recall her trips to the horses. She often said things like, ‘Linda, why do I love horses so much?’ We have taken our mom to family events and fun activities that she can’t recall the next day, so this connection means the world to us.”
“Another very subtle, but hugely important, social aspect I noticed as the weeks went on was the impact of the residents experiencing this together, and the family members experiencing it together. The residents formed a camaraderie that was so cool — I wish every memory care person could experience it.”
More Than Horses
“These trips are so much more than just horses. They are more about the people. Mom sat in the front row of the van just amazed by Becky and her driving skills. Ingrid, Eileen, Becky, Tanya and Ann made the whole experience more fun with their excitement and great attitudes. And of course, Holly from Fun-E Farm T.O.O., who made it all possible, found ways to involve each resident on their own level, and made everyone feel important and included.”
Enjoying Every Moment
“When I said we would be part of this pilot, I was a little concerned that my mother would not take to the animals and not enjoy the experience. This was far from the truth. With proper encouragement and guidance, she rode in a horse and buggy, groomed a horse, and fed the horses apples and carrots. She enjoyed every minute of being on the field trip. She interacted with the other residents and staff in a very positive way and even remembered the previous week’s experience.”
Rare Quality Time
“For many families, the experience was the most quality time they’ve spent with their mothers and fathers in a long time,” said Becky. Here are a couple of their stories:
“As a visitor on the field trip, it was wonderful to be a part of my mother’s joy. I struggle to figure out what to do with my mother since her dementia is becoming advanced. This type of experience was a positive one for both of us. Thank you for the opportunity to pilot this wonderful program.”
“Mom’s love and enthusiasm for the horses were obvious benefits of these trips, but I think the most beneficial aspect that was less obvious was the amount of social interaction. For the family, the chance to do something with her that wasn’t dragging her to the doctor or dentist was huge. Even taking her shopping or out to eat is fun for us, but a lot of effort and worry. To get in a van and be surrounded by such loving and supportive people meant the world to us. We were able to sit back and just be in the moment with her, and it was beautiful.”
Happy Trails to You
One memorable moment came at the end of each visit. “Holly Schaefer, the instructor, would get on the bus at the end of every visit and sing, ‘Happy Trails to You, Until We Meet Again,’” recalled Becky.
And they definitely will meet again. “Because the program went so well and there were so many positive outcomes, when the spring weather hits, we’ll continue to do this six-week program 2–3 times a year with different residents,” said Becky.
She finished with one final thought. “For Eileen, with all her years of experience in the dementia field, for her to walk away with tears in her eyes and say this is the best experience she had in her career, that was amazing.”
Check out this video of Equine Therapy at Meadowood: