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Saddle up! Dementia care and horses? It’s a fit.

Saddle up! Dementia care and horses? It’s a fit.
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September 8, 2020
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When you think of dementia care, horses may not immediately come to mind. Clearly you haven’t been to Louisville’s Groundwork Ranch.

DSC01894Small-(1).jpgIt’s not a coincidence that both the staff and the horses at Groundwork Ranch will be decked out in purple next weekend for the Sept. 12 Boulder Walk to End Alzheimer’s. The ranch, which is the only equine-assisted learning facility in Boulder County with a program specifically for family care partners of loved ones with dementia, has been collaborating with the Alzheimer’s Association for several years on innovative programs, both for Alzheimer’s caregivers and those living with the disease.

Developing a non-verbal rapport with horses bears some similarity to the skills that family caregivers must hone in working with their loved ones as they progress with the disease. And the staff at Groundwork are trained in both horse handling and human mental health and psychology.

DSC01823Small.jpg“Taking the Reins” is a program the team at Groundwork Ranch developed to help Alzheimer’s caregivers work with horses to learn and practice new ways of thinking about and managing challenging behaviors that support their own mental health and allow them to provide better care. Those include:

• Recognizing that their loved one’s perception of a situation may be different than their own
• Understanding that their loved one is communicating through their behavior 
• Responding to challenging behaviors with empathy
• Adapting expectations and redefining success 
• Prioritizing the relationship over completion of a task 
• Understanding subtle, nonverbal cues in interactions
• Partnering with their loved one to elicit cooperation 

“The program utilizes the non-verbal skills necessary in communicating with horses to help caregivers, both professionals and family members, make the connection on a non-verbal level with their loved ones living with the disease,” said Ralph Patrick, director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado Boulder region office. “The co-founders (Lottie Grimes and Dave Wyner) are not only experienced equine people, but therapists as well.” 
And both have family connections to Alzheimer’s disease, which inspires them and gives them an appreciation for the challenges of caregiving.

“As we’ve hosted our equine-assisted learning workshops for family care partners of loved ones with dementia, we’ve repeatedly been awed by their strength, courage and compassion,” said Wyner. “We’ve seen them take a much-needed respite from the demands of their caregiving responsibilities to care for themselves, learn, and support each other. Watching their energy change and their camaraderie form is incredibly moving. We’re committed to doing what we can, especially in these challenging times, to support the care partners on their difficult journeys and the Association in its efforts to put an end to Alzheimer’s and other dementia.”

Horses as therapists

It’s not just the staff who are providing lessons. 

“The benefit for the person living with Alzheimer’s is that they are with another being – the horse – with whom they can communicate on a different level,” said Patrick. “The horse doesn't judge them but loves them and responds to them positively.”

Walking to End Alzheimer’s

Because of the close connection between the Alzheimer’s Association and Groundwork Ranch, the ranch staff decided to commit themselves and six of their horses to participate in the Sept. 12 Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
“We are inviting a few friends and family to come to the ranch and walk with the horses to support the Alzheimer's Association,” said Wyner. “We have cut a trail around the ranch that is about 2/10ths of a mile and, as people arrive, they will be invited to lead a horse around the path. The horses will all be decked out in purple and the path will be decorated to provide fun picture opportunities for all of our walkers.”

Those who cannot join at the ranch are encouraged to join Groundwork Ranch’s remote walk team and sponsor a horse to do the walking for you. All of the horses are registered with the last name "Groundwork Ranch" so people can still feel like they are participating with the horses. 

To learn more about Groundwork Ranch and its participation in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, click here or go to:

Alzheimer's Association

The Alzheimer's Association leads the way to end Alzheimer's and all other dementia — by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer's and all other dementia.™ For more information, visit or call the 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900.

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