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A ‘magical’ treatment for seniors with dementia: Horse therapy

Seniors take part in a session at Simple Changes Therapeutic Riding Center this month in Mason Neck, Va. Therapeutic riding is shown to help reduce depression and improve physical and cognitive abilities in people of all ages. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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John Eliff wasn’t sure about painting a horse.

Eliff, 91, stood beside Stetson, an 11-year-old palomino. He picked up a foam paintbrush, dipped it into a cup of purple paint and gingerly laid it on the horse’s pale-gold flank.

With his son, Jack Eliff, standing protectively behind him, the elder Eliff started to paint. “Look at the color of this,” he said. Two vertical strokes and one horizontal — the letter H. Then he stopped. He frowned at the horse and started shaking his head. “If it looks nice,” he said, “why paint it?”

Painting is not mandatory in this equine-assisted learning program, but it is one of the many ways participants are taught to engage with horses, with the goal of stimulating their minds and bodies. Since 2017, Simple Changes Therapeutic Riding Center in Mason Neck, Va., has teamed up with Goodwin Living, a senior living and health-care facility in Alexandria, to introduce residents with cognitive impairment and anxiety to the residents of its barn.

One roommate is 85. The other is 27. Such arrangements are growing.

Up to six people at a time participate in the four-week sessions, which include horse identification, grooming, feeding, leading, discussing equine literature, poetry and haiku writing, and making horse treats. The collaboration began when Barbara Bolin, a social worker at Goodwin House Alexandria and a lifelong rider and horse owner, reached out to Corliss Wallingford, the nonprofit equine therapy organization’s executive director.

“Corliss and I believe horses are magical and they can fix almost anything,” Bolin said.

Wallingford insists the benefits are more scientific than magical. Studies show animal-assisted activities are associated with increased life satisfaction and decreased depression in older adults, including those with and without dementia or cognitive impairment.

“Horses are really good reflectors of what we bring to the situation,” Wallingford said. “As prey animals, they react a certain way. It’s very nonjudgmental, and it’s very in-the-moment.”

The organization, which serves people of all ages who have physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities, has five full-time horses and a sixth in training. To function safely in a therapeutic setting, they must be able to handle situations such as hearing a loud noise or encountering a wheelchair or walker without getting spooked. Some participants can ride the horses, with assistants walking alongside to spot them, though visitors from Goodwin Living do not.

The therapy is beneficial socially, physically and emotionally, Wallingford said.

“If you can’t walk and you get out of your wheelchair and you’re on a 1,200-pound animal and it’s going where you want it to go, that’s empowering,” she said.

For Goodwin House Alexandria residents, getting on a bus and seeing a change of scenery provides a palpable sense of excitement.

“I’ve had Barbara say to me after I’ve had a long conversation with somebody: ‘What did she say? She never talks at the facility,’” Wallingford said.

After a session, participants with advanced dementia talk about the horses and often ask to return, Bolin said. “These times of engagement can divert a person from feeling isolated, lonely or upset,” she said. “The resident comes out of their illness for a while.”

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On a sweltering day last week, three seniors from Goodwin House Alexandria sat in the barn’s indoor riding arena as Wallingford guided them through gentle calisthenics.

“So the first thing we do when we get on a horse is feel our bottoms,” she said.

“What are you going to do if I can’t find it?” quipped Sarah McGaughy, 80, a former chartered financial analyst on Wall Street.

“I will love you just the same,” Wallingford assured her.

They moved their feet up and down. “Bottom on the chair, feet on the ground, forward and back, stretch your arms, forward and back, forward and back,” Wallingford called out. They made angel wings. They made mummy arms. “Feel as if you’re going to stand up. Push the weight. Feel the ground under you. … Look at all these riders! Isn’t that the most awesome?”

The group passed around riding crops, and Wallingford showed them how a stirrup worked.

“So,” she said, “before we get a pony out to play with, we’re going to talk about what horses eat.”

“Horsemeat?” McGaughy said.

Wallingford wrinkled her nose. “No, thank you.” Horses are herbivores, she told them. “They eat continuously, and if they don’t, their teeth start growing too much.”

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Assistants brought out hay, an apple and a carrot, and Wallingford grabbed a handful of fresh grass from outside the barn door. She held it out to Eliff, who tipped his head down and opened his mouth as if to take a bite.

“No, I don’t want you to eat some. I just want you to touch it,” Wallingford said.

They passed hay around, to experience what it smelled like. “Don’t eat it,” Eliff’s son Jack said. His father promptly opened his mouth. But he was smiling. And that made Bolin tear up.

“It’s so exciting, because it’s communication,” she said. “I wish everyone could see him. Because folks get medicalized. It’s nice to see that part of him.”

Some residents have what Bolin describes as “skin hunger,” which stroking the horses can assuage. “It’s the absence of touch,” she said. “If someone’s separated from their family, they’re not getting hugs.”

Family members who join the visits are sometimes shocked by their loved ones’ responses, Bolin said. “You can see that there’s a reservoir of some kind of memory that’s still there,” she said. “Corliss will hand them a brush, and what do they do? They brush the horse. Their family member gets very emotional sometimes when they see their parent connecting.”

Kathleen Pepper, whose father, Donald Pepper, 88, has participated in the program, said it opens him up. “He is much more outgoing after he’s seen the horses, because he wants to tell you what the horses have done,” she said.

Donald Pepper formed a special connection with a retired Philadelphia hansom cab horse. “He and Yogi just really, really bonded,” his daughter said. “He really looked forward to it when Yogi was there.”

After Yogi died, he drew a picture of the horse that now hangs, framed, near the horses’ stalls.

Families pay for residents to take part in the program. Goodwin Living has applied for grants to expand the program to other assisted-living homes and help subsidize for people who can’t afford it.

Each session adjusts to participants’ interests. With one group, “I was talking about my love of horse literature, and everyone had a horse book that they loved,” Wallingford said. They discussed “Black Beauty” and “The Black Stallion.”

In last week’s group, Wallingford brought out four model horses she had owned for half a century, purchased on childhood trips to the Museum of Industry and Science in Chicago. “I would go straight to the gift shop for the horses,” she told them, recalling her childhood obsession. “I would wear brown tights and white bobby socks and I would gallop around the house.”

Holding up the models, she pointed out their markings and explained the history behind the appearance of some horses that are bred for “flashy” colors. Then three live horses were led into the space, and she asked the participants to match them to the models.

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Eliff, a former vice president of a lumberyard, tapped on a model palomino and pointed at Stetson. He tapped on a model pinto and pointed at Stella, a black horse with white markings.

Then it was time to paint. Posie, a bay mare, was led to McGaughy, who uses a wheelchair. She reached out to touch the horse’s flank, and lit up with a smile.

Vivian Coda, therapeutic recreation supervisor at Goodwin House Alexandria, handed her a foam brush and some paint. “Can you put some dots on him?” she said.

“Does he like orange?” McGaughy asked. She tentatively dabbed. “Let’s make some polka dots.”

A few feet away, Anne Withers, 82, a former computer programmer, stood painting a red infinity symbol on Stetson’s right shoulder. “You’re such a nice guy,” she said to him. “Look at how patient he is. That’s what really inspires me.”

She added a green outline, then cocked her head and tried to come up with a title.

“Just call it ‘Eyes,’ I don’t know — or maybe ‘Sunglasses,’” she said. “Such a nice horse.”

“You have such a kind tone in your voice when you talk to him,” Bolin said.

“Do I?” Withers said. “How can you not feel that way? When I go up to an animal like that, I start to love him.” Her eyes glistened. “How can you not?”

On Stetson’s other side, Eliff was frowning at his purple “H.”

“No, no, I don’t want to paint it,” he declared. Instead, he started stroking the animal.

“I’d love to step on this and stand on here,” he said softly, making the motion of mounting the horse. He kept his hand on Stetson. “It feels good.”

“So you don’t want to paint it?” Jack Eliff asked.

“No, no, I just want to, just want him to feel good,” his father said. He stroked the horse some more and smiled.

“Good boy, good boy, yeah, good boy. He says, ‘Somebody’s all around me.’ Yeah. That’s a good boy. Yeah.”