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Horseplay Encouraged

March 1, 2005
by root
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It's not rodeo, but some Texas nursing home residents manage to get back in the saddle-with help by David Barnard
BY DAVID BARNARD Horseplay encouraged
Equestrian therapy makes use of its "neigh"-sayers
As an administrator, how often do you walk around your facility and see residents nuzzling their caregivers' necks, brushing their hair, or hand-feeding them carrots and apples? At Deerings Nursing and Rehabilitation in Odessa, Texas, I have the pleasure of seeing that every week. Our residents are blessed with the attention of three special volunteers who thrive on their affection: Lucky, Cody, and Bandit are the heart and soul of Deerings' Equine Activities Program.

While many horsemen are aware of the value of horses as therapeutic tools for children with disabilities, I am unaware of anyone else who uses them to work with the elderly in a nursing home setting. What started out as a hopeful experiment has blossomed into a successful therapeutic program.

I have always loved horses. In 1995, I bought a black Tennessee Walking Horse stud. Lucky was so calm and sensible that I decided to ride him to the nursing home where I worked at the time as a special treat for the residents. They were all so excited to see and touch a horse. One lady, Anna, was brave enough to ride as long as I led Lucky. Anna had suffered a stroke and was physically sound in every way except for her speech. She could only utter one word, and then 30 seconds to a minute would pass before she could say another. But when leading her around on Lucky, I looked back at Anna and asked how she liked the ride. She said, "I like it just fine. This is the first time I've ever been on a horse!" I nearly fell over! We walked a bit longer and talked some more. Then I helped her down, hugged her, and hugged Lucky, too. Back on the ground, Anna immediately reverted to one-word conversations, but I will never forget this amazing episode.

As happens in careers, I moved on to other facilities, and I could bring Lucky to work occasionally. Even though he has been somewhat aloof with me on occasion, Lucky never hesitates to put his head down in the lap of a wheelchair-bound resident so he can be petted. He is also a bit of a ham and has posed for our local paper and appeared on local TV news more than once.

The first few times I brought Lucky to work at Deerings, Libby, an elderly mentally challenged lady, would watch through a window. After a while, she ventured outside for a closer look. On a later visit, she fearfully petted him. Finally, I helped her up into the saddle and stood with her while she held my neck in a death grip. Eventually she relaxed and sat erect for nearly three minutes. She didn't want the horse to move; she just wanted to sit there. After she dismounted, it seemed that her life had changed. Always a timid soul, Libby became more comfortable expressing herself and acting more assertively. Although she remains difficult to understand, I believe she accomplished her goal: Bravely mounting a horse, she saw the world from a new perspective. That was enough for her, and I couldn't be happier.

Two years ago, I lobbied Daybreak Healthcare, Deerings' operating company, to expand this program. The position of Equine Activities Director was approved and, after a couple hiring hiccups, Jodie Rose was hired. Jodie has a master's degree in agriculture, focusing on equine nutrition and reproduction. With a ranching background and college experience working in a therapeutic riding program designed for children with disabilities, Jodie was a perfect fit for the program. The glamour other employees associated with Jodie's position soon disappeared. The heat, dirt, manure, and hard physical work give this activity a downside, but assisting once-broken bodies and spirits to mend and succeed is overwhelmingly satisfying. On her first day at work she and I built a ramp and mounting platform that put wheelchair residents at saddle-horn level to enhance resident safety and save our backs. Daybreak funded the purchase of a 50'-round pen, hay, and other equipment, including belts and helmets for resident safety.

We use Lucky, my Tennessee Walker (20 years old); Cody, my wife Trudy's paint (a retired 15-year-old ranch horse); and Jodie's quarter horse Bandit (about to turn 30 years old) for our work with residents. With Lucky's smooth gait, Cody's elastic gait, and Bandit's choppy gait, Jodie is able to match horse to resident according to the resident's need. For example, a person with low muscle tone might need Bandit to awaken sleeping nerves and muscles. A person with high muscle tone would benefit from Lucky's subtle stimulation. Cody, our most responsive horse, suits several types of riders. The movements that a horse makes when walking transfer to his rider's body and mimic the movements made in normal walking. Residents who have difficulty walking quickly see improvement after a few riding sessions.

With the addition of some perimeter fencing, we were able to unwind our 50'-round pen to create a 50' + 100'-riding arena, a more effective layout because it provides enough area for the straight-line walking and trotting gaits that are often necessary to generate the proper stimulation for the resident.

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