Health & Medicine

Study harnesses healing power of horses for dementia patients

Facilatators Liz Williams and Leila Djakvic work with one of the horses involved in the workshops.
Facilatators Liz Williams and Leila Djakvic work with one of the horses involved in the workshops. Connected Horse

A groundbreaking program that has helped people with dementia by having them interact with horses will launch at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine at the end of this month after a test run at Stanford University.

The veterinary school, the UC Davis School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the nonprofit group Connected Horse will collaborate on a clinical trial, which will pair people undergoing early stage dementia and mild cognitive impairment and their caregivers with horses in the hopes of improving the patients’ demeanor and communication skills.

Grooming and walking the horses can have a therapeutic effect on people with memory loss, who often feel isolated and anxious while their memory is slipping, said Nancy Schier Anzelmo, founder of Alzheimer’s Care Associates in Rocklin and a faculty member of the gerontology department at California State University, Sacramento.

Schier Anzelmo and senior living consultant Paula Hertel created the research study, including conducting a pilot study with 10 participants at Stanford University last spring. Initial results found that people were more energized and exhibited more positive facial expressions by the end of the horse workshops. The study facilitators also noted that the participants with dementia were better able to follow instructions and social cues than they were at the start of the pilot.

“Horses have this innate ability to sense nonverbal communication and mirror it back,” Hertel said. “Participants learn from that – they look at what the horses are doing and they modify their behavior and learn how to work with a horse. With a 1,200-pound animal, you can’t force them to do something – it’s really a collaborative activity.”

The stress of a dementia diagnosis often takes a toll on both the patient and their partner, Hertel said, the program is designed to help both people in a relationship.

“People get stuck in this role of feeling labeled and their sense of self-worth and confidence is eroding,” she said. “The care partner now takes on this role of the protector and caregiver. The balance of the relationship really changes. The stress of it is real for everybody.”

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, affects one in nine people over age 65. By 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer’s may nearly triple, from 5.2 million to a projected 13.8 million, according to 2016 data from the Alzheimer’s Association.

With that in mind, it’s important to think of more creative and effective ways to serve dementia patients, said Sarah Tomaszewski Farias, a researcher at the UC Davis Alzheimer’s center who will work on the study. Horse programs are used to treat children with autism, veterans and former inmates, she said, but people with dementia have yet to undergo such studies.

“Right now there aren’t very good treatments available for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease,” Farias said. “We don’t have anything that really alters the disease course much. So it’s really important to identify how we can make people’s lives better despite having the disease, and the people who they are in contact with, also improve their quality of life. That’s really what this type of program is aimed at.”

The clinical trial begins Monday and will accommodate between 12 and 20 participants. The trial will include three workshop days, plus orientation and follow-up phone calls. No experience with horses is required. For more information, call 916-708-4904 or visit

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola