How Horses Can Help Couples Battling Dementia and Alzheimer’s

DAVIS -- A program at UC Davis is using collaborative efforts with horses to help couples dealing with Dementia and Alzheimer's.

If you ask Richard Driver about the first time he laid eyes on Charlotte,the love of his life, and he lights up.

"When I first saw her ... she walked into that church I hit my friend, I said 'Who is that?'," Richard said. He remembers every detail of that moment more than four decades ago.

A few more minutes with him, and he'll tell you story after story about his past.
On the surface it might be hard to believe that Richard is gradually losing his memory.

"Things are changing drastically. He might repeat a lot of things that he doesn't remember asking me. It becomes disheartening because he's not the same person that I used to know," said Richard's wife Charlotte.

Richard's been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Doctors will tell you its just a matter of time before he develops Alzheimer's, and Charlotte becomes his caretaker.

"I didn't want to believe it at first," said Richard.

The disease runs in both their families. At one point the couple's fathers were both cared for at the same facility. The couple now cares for Charlotte's mother with dementia.

But that doesnt make it any easier for Charlotte to accept her husband of nearly 40 years, might lose his memories with her, even his ability to recognize who she is.

"That does get rough. Yeah. I know that it can happen, and it's okay. But I just want to be able to deal with it, and I think I will but it's painful," said Charlotte.

But the couple isn't taking Richard's diagnosis lying down. Their efforts to at least slow down Alzheimers has led them, of all places, to the stables UC Davis's Equestrian Center.

"The amazing thing about a horse is its a physical and mental experience," said Claudia Sonder, director of research at the UC Davis Equine Center. Sonder oversees all research projects at the sprawling, 25-acre area that houses close to 200 horse. At any given time, there are about a dozen projects involving the horses.

"Most other programs in the country don't have a herd like this to train their scientists, to train their veterinarians and to investigate medical problems," said Sonder.

Despite all the research that happens there, Alzheimer's and Dementia weren't among the most obvious topics in which to involve the horses.

"Horses have this innate ability to sense feeling and energy around them and they give you that immediate feedback," said Paula Hertel, who alongside Nancy Schier Anzelmo created the Connected Horse Project.

Both have worked with horses their whole lives, and spent their professional careers focused on seniors' health issues like Alzheimers and Dementia.

Between those subjects they drew a connection one not everyone saw at first.

"Yes. We were told a few times, so you're going to do some crazy horse project?" said Schier Anzelmo.

Most estimates from the Alzheimer's Association put the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer's at more than five million - the majority are over age 65.

In its worst stages Alzheimer's patients can lose their ability to speak entirely. Working with the horses takes nonverbal communication.

At the heart of the research with Connected Horses, the idea that couples dealing with Alzheimer's can learn to interact better with each other by communicating with the horses.

"It's this sense of collaboration with the horse, that's bigger than you, that's more powerful than you. You're communicating with them and you're in a new environment together," said Hertel.

"We've learned a lot about one another," said Charlotte.

Charlotte and Richard were among seven couples to take part in three, five hour workshops over three weeks grooming, feeding and doing exercises with the horses.

Hertel and Schier Anzelmo tracked their progress and comfort level with the animals, and with each other.

"It really helps me to see Richard in a different light. Just go into his world and remember that he doesnt remember what we did yesterday but let's just act like it's okay and accepting and work with him," said Charlotte.

"We've seen couples just heal right in front of our eyes. It's amazing," said Schier Anzelmo.

Connected Horse focuses on the caregivers like Charlotte just as much as the person facing Dementia or Alzheimer's, always a team of three - the couple, and the horse, feeling each other out.

During walks, the horses and couples would often start on different paces and gradually begin walking at the same pace, an example, according to Hertel of the symmetry and cooperation couples master through nonverbal communication with the horses.

"I've learned a lot about me. What I have to do in relationships," said Richard.

By no means are Richard and Charlotte unrealistic about what their future might hold.

"I think about some of the other ladies in our group whose husbands don't even know them. And I wonder, will that happen to me," said Charlotte. Whatever comes next, the couple knows they're in the journey together.

The Connected Horse program will continue to operate. There are three research workshops set for April 24, May 1 and May 8. Program operators are now starting to recruit participants for those workshops.