The Connected Horse Project is up and running.

By Pam McDonald

To get their innovative dementia care research and treatment project out of the starting gate, creators Nancy Schier Anzelmo and Paula Hertel reached out to their colleagues in the senior living industry for financial assistance. They were not disappointed — industry companies and individuals donated or pledged over $20,000 to fund the pilot study costs.

Once funding was available to cover related fees to Stanford University, which is guiding the research, and for the location at Stanford’s Red Barn Equine Leadership Program, the first Connected Horse pilot study was conducted in November at the Stanford stable.

Ten people — 5 dyads comprised of a person diagnosed with dementia and his/her care partner, a spouse, adult child, another relative, or friend — participated in the pilot. They first underwent medical pre-screening, completed a series of standardized measures and quality of life indicators, as well as a facilitated tour of the barn.

Three dyads continued in two 5-hour workshops in which they completed guided activities with the horses, such as greeting, grooming or leading them. Two dyads participated in a modified program due to physical limitations.

Horses have an innate ability to “read” behaviors and emotions and mirror them to the group. The Project facilitator brought behaviors to participants’ awareness so they could interpret, on a personal level, what the horse is trying to convey. Discussion groups that followed each workshop allowed time for participants to process their interactions with the horses and offered a forum to share thoughts and emotions.

“As longtime equestrians and dementia care specialists,” Nancy said, “we believe that equine-guided activities can help participants further communication and coping skills; and begin to define changing roles, while releasing fears and learning to be fully present in the moment.”

To wrap up the pilot, participants spent 2 hours in post-program interviews and assessments. Nancy and Paula were present at all the sessions and have compiled some initial observations. The preliminary findings of the study will be presented on January 14, 2016 at Stanford Medicine’s Annual Community Health Symposium, which showcases a wide range of service and partnership research projects undertaken by the University.

The Connected Horse Project included, in addition to Nancy and Paula, Jacqueline Hartman, co-founder and lead facilitator of Stanford’s Red Barn Leadership Program; Dolores Gallagher Thompson, PhD, the project’s principal investigator; Nusha Askari, PhD, the project research coordinator; Elizabeth Landsverk, M.D., the study’s Medical Advisor; and Elke Tekin, project assistant.

Over 200,000 persons under the age of 65 already are living with a dementia diagnosis. Paula stated, “We hope to continue our project and that it becomes a way persons with young onset dementia and their care partners learn coping skills, have an outlet for engagement, and overcome anxiety, which may help their overall relationship as they deal with the road that lies ahead.

Our next steps include looking for additional resources to develop training material, securing other equestrian sites and obtaining funding for new programs. There are 9.2 million horses in the United States and over 2 million horse owners. We believe people and their horses may want to be of service to others,” Paula said.

The pilot study showed promising results for all of the participants. “We were pleasantly surprised at how quickly the participants in the study developed trust with each other,” Nancy said. “The sense of community and trust was palpable. One of the participants stated she left with hope and a sense of encouragement that she could walk this journey and be okay.”

“This is why we want to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to our colleagues in the assisted living business and to our other supporters,” Nancy and Paula stated. “This generosity enabled us to conduct the pilot. We are truly grateful for their financial support and their belief in alternative ways to assist those we have the honor to care for everyday.”  

“We have worked with an amazing group of Stanford University professionals, volunteers, and horses,” the project creators said. “We’re also thankful for the help of our donors and colleagues at the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and the California Assisted Living Association (CALA).

Looking to the future, the Connected Horse Project is still actively seeking funds for next steps. Those who would like to contribute may do so through

The following are industry sponsors and individuals who pledged or made generous contributions to this project:

Belmont Village Senior Living

Doug Pancake Architects

Integral Senior Living

Masonic Homes

Premier Properties

Silverado Senior Living

Sunrise Senior Living

Vintage Senior Living

Chris Kasulka

Brant Watson

and over 50 other individuals.