Horses and Alzheimer’s

Horses are good therapy for the body, soul, and spirit.

Something new is stirring for me. In addition to working with those wanting to go more deeply into their spiritual nature, with those in the arts, and those suffering from childhood traumas, I’m beginning to explore bringing together the horses with those with severe memory loss. The following anecdote has further stimulated my interest:

When I picked up my Alzheimer’s client at her home, she was agitated. Not necessarily angry as she has been at other times, but restless and overly talkative about something that was upsetting to her. I was not able to interpret as I often do.

She was in another world. “Out of it” were the words that kept coming to me.

When we arrived at the pasture with the horses, she was not able to relate to them. She literally could not see them from afar or close up, nor did she want to help feed them. I began to doubt whether horses were the best venue for her as I had believed.

We had lunch together, and as I listened to her talk, it became clear that she was in a different story. I was one of the players in that story as sometimes I am if she is trying to let me know she’s upset with me. but this time I seemed to be a surrogate.  So I went into the story with her and became that person she was trying to convince.  I let her talk in words that sounded somewhat like gibberish at times, which I’ve been learning to interpret.

As she talked, I noticed that Dollar, our head horse, moved in behind her right on cue. I had become aware earlier that he was staying near her. Wherever she was, there was Dollar. I was curious and tried to make her aware of him but to no avail. Once again I began to doubt, and inwardly questioned whether I’d been fooling myself all these months about the benefit of horses in her life. We’d had some special moments together, she had sung, danced, and conversed with them. Her communication would seem clearer when we were with the horses. Today, however, nothing seemed to calm her. It seemed pointless.

So the 3 of us, Sarah (not her real name), Dollar, and myself were together in what I call the outdoor reception room for clients. She was sitting on a wooden bench with a bouquet of wildflowers in front of her which was sitting on my grandmother’s old laundry room bench now a “coffee” table. The coastal sun warmed us as Sarah continued to talk and Dollar munched on hay directly behind her back. She was referring to some encounter we’d had, nothing that was familiar to me, but with someone, real or imagined. I was the surrogate. She was being very mature, careful, and polite as she explained in broken words and sentences that she would never purposely offend me, but she needed to defend herself from some sort of accusation, a false accusation of something she hadn’t done, nor would ever do. She went to great lengths to explain it all, but there was always some piece missing.

Suddenly, Dollar whispered to me and I knew exactly what to say. I looked her straight in the eye and said with conviction, “Sarah, I believe you.”  That was all she needed. To be heard, and to be acknowledged. The change in her was amazing. The story stopped, she became her normal Alzheimer’s self again, and even helped put pellets in a bucket for the horses’ evening feed. We were back to our normal interactions, with a little less baggage for Sarah to carry.

Whether her story was something recent, or from years of struggle from what I know to be a childhood trauma she mentions occasionally, I don’t know. But with Alzheimer’s becoming epidemic, I have concerns but also inklings that there may be inroads we can make outside of medical solutions. Anything we can do that helps those with severe memory loss find some respite for their souls, is worth pursuing. I am speculating that childhood traumas that are suppressed might possibly contribute to a propensity to Alzheimer’s. At least in this case, knowing some of her history, I suspect it has.

What I am beginning to experience is that the horses can bridge that communication gap. They themselves communicate with a different language which some of us can understand. I credit Dollar with communicating to me, as the horses have done many times before, the very words I needed to say to her that brought her solace. I now have no more doubt about the benefits for Sarah of being in the presence of the horses without having physical interaction. I love heartwarming surprises like this one.

There is so much more I want to explore with Alzheimer’s clients. There are so many possible avenues to bring degrees of healing, and I am one to believe that anything is possible even when something is called incurable. There may not be a panacea nor ever be, but who knows what might be accomplished on an individual basis, and in this case in the presence of horses.

I can only imagine the torment they must feel when they are unable to communicate with even loved ones. We take for granted, I’m afraid, our abilities to speak out about a troubling experience or even a joyful one, or our ability to stand up for ourselves in normal family frictions. Some of us may not, but the option exists. It must feel like some kind of hell to them when they can’t and no wonder some would wander away looking for “home.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I am not an expert, but a pilgrim on a journey to understand more. Ohio State University has done preliminary studies and found significant evidence that the interaction of Alzheimer’s with horses caused improvement in behavior. There is more for us to know. We do not need to wait for science which often follows anecdotal records. Horses are an important avenue to bridge the gap in communication and bring healing to trouble in the soul.

2 thoughts on “Horses and Alzheimer’s

    1. If we lived closer, I would love for you to be a part of the program! You are so attune to it all, the ambience as well, the dance of nature, and the soothing of the cry of the soul. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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