Back in the Saddle Again: Equine-assisted activities help treat dementia.

Equine-assisted activities aren’t new, but there are new ways they are being used to help individuals and families with memory and psychological issues like dementia. This story tells the journey of one family as they discover the simple joys of horseback riding again.

Susan Noble’s Story

Susan Noble was in her late 60s when her daughter, Cathy Witteveen, first began to notice symptoms of dementia in her mother. It was something the family had always watched for, since Susan’s father and grandmother also had dementia. Now, at 73, Susan lives with her daughter’s family in Leesburg, and is enjoying her best life as a result of a new type of stimulation: equine-assisted activities.

Susan had always been active in the community and especially enjoyed going to the senior center to take yoga, tai chi and art classes. When her disease progressed to the point where she needed constant supervision, Cathy asked the senior center staff for elder services recommendations. After interviewing several resources, she chose to work with Chris Kondracki of Always Best Care of Loudoun.

“When I met with Chris for the first time, we talked about what I needed for Mom and all the things the company offered. I told Chris how active Mom was and all the things she did, like dancing, tai chi and yoga, and the one thing she used to love—horseback riding. Susan’s family owned horses and she had ridden until her mid-to-late 20s,” Cathy explained.

“I wanted to fill Mom’s life with things she loved, and knew there were equine programs for veterans and children with disabilities, but when I looked around for something for my Mom, I didn’t find anything for Alzheimer’s or dementia care. Chris listened to what I said and told me that his own daughter had done therapeutic horse work through Bridle Paths. He jumped in and immediately got us connected with each other to see if they could help.”

“What Chris did in connecting us to Bridle Paths made a huge difference in my Mom’s life,” Cathy said. “It has brought so much joy, excitement and fun back to her.”

A difference in Susan was apparent with just the first program at Bridle Paths. After meeting her horse Elmo and riding on the first day, there suddenly was enthusiasm and excitement that had been missing from Susan’s life. She immediately asked, “What time are we going tomorrow?” her daughter said with a laugh.

Susan herself jumped in on the conversation, saying “I’ve always loved horses and they like you back! It’s a connection!” and then added, “When are we going again?”

Bridle Paths Equine-Assisted Activities

“When Susan finished her first lesson, she started to tear up and said, ‘That was incredible—like what I used to do.’ Riding gave her a window into what she was formerly able to do and accessed the strength and ability that were still there,” explained Katie Fallon, president of Bridle Paths. Susan remembered how to ride, and started to remember things from her past and talk about them.

“Riding programs have been around for a long time, but the mental health component is comparatively young,” Katie continued. “But it’s such a rich and profound experience to work in this area. It’s not so much that we’re teaching our clients about horses and how to ride, it’s about identifying and rediscovering people’s strengths and abilities. For family members and caregivers, it is easy to get sucked into what you can do to people by giving them labels. Seeing what people can do is really important. There are documented benefits of just being who you are. If you can settle in, take a breath, and just be, you can access the learning aspects of equine-assisted mental health work.”

Leesburg-based Bridle Paths is a nonprofit organization offering strength, support and healing to individuals and families with physical, cognitive, psychological and emotional needs through equine-assisted activities and therapies.

Always Best Care Senior Services

“Mom’s safety is always the number one priority, and when she got to the point where she needed help, we knew we had to make some changes,” Cathy said. That’s when they connected with Always Best Care to bring on a professional caregiver to help. Caregiver Loretta comes several times a week and has become an invaluable and beloved asset to both Susan and her family. This enables Cathy and her husband Bart to have some time to care for themselves and their children, and go out for a date night now and again.

Loretta accompanies Susan to her Bridle Path sessions as part of her responsibilities. “I noticed the difference in Susan’s attitude as a result of the connection with Bridle Paths,” she noted. “Being able to go back to what she used to love makes her happier. She’s always excited to go horseback riding and it has brought back memories of her youth.”

“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of services available for people in the mid-stages of dementia. There are a lot at the beginning, and respite care in the later stages, but not much to bridge that gap with people with cognitive issues. And it can be particularly frustrating for people who are still physically active, like Susan,” explained Chris Kondracki, owner of Always Best Care of Loudoun.

“We are always looking for new ways to help people with dementia and their families, so it was such a pleasure to see that Susan was doing so well with Bridle Paths,” he continued. “Watching someone find renewed excitement in their lives never gets old. It’s one of the wonderful benefits about our services.”

As senior care specialists, Always Best Care provides non-medical in-home care and assisted living referral services for families and elders in Loudoun County. Some of their additional services include a free telephone call service to talk to someone who’s alone or lonely, Veteran’s assistance programs, discount prescription cards, a medication dispensing service, and Philip’s Lifeline®, the “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” wireless medical alert system.

Although equine-assisted activities for mental health issues is still new, it is already making an impact—at least on the lives of this local family. “We’re lucky in a way,” Cathy added. “Most people live their lives doing things routinely. With dementia, you only have so many years before you lose your memory, so we’re trying to make sure Mom enjoys life and has fun.”

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