Grace Naclerio lightly holds Tino aka Well Done’s reins. Tino, a stunning 12-year-old warmblood bay gelding from Mexico at 16.3 hands tall, follows her with his eyes and pushes his nose into her hand. Laughing, she scratches his big face. Grace is a poised high school senior whose years of equitation are evident. She has been riding since elementary school when her mother, a lifelong equestrian, brought her along for a trail ride and Grace’s little pony jumped over a cowgate. She slipped and almost tumbled off her saddle, but her fearless, ear-to-ear grin made it clear, Grace liked to jump.
Horse and rider have a relaxed rapport as they joke with each other while waiting in the arena. While the two are at the top of the USHJA junior division (finished 3rd in zone 10 for 2022) and 5th in Las Vegas 2022 Jumping Nationals over fences, they won’t be training or competing today. In fact, the activities at hand are deliberately slow, the opposite of the fast-paced, intense energy of competition.
Grace and Tino volunteer for an innovative program supporting people with dementia and their care partners, who are often a spouse or an adult child. Through a three-weekend program that includes therapeutic guided interactions with horses, called Connected Horse, participants learn how to be more fully present in the moment and often come away with emotional healing and increased confidence that they can learn to live with this disease. Many Connected Horse participants report that their involvement has helped improve sleep, reduced anxiety, enriched their primary connections, and helped them become more socially engaged.
The program benefits the young volunteers too. Connected Horse founders Paula Hertel and Nancy Schier Anzelmo stress, “the intergenerational program helps to destigmatize dementia by normalizing interactions among the program participants, who are often elderly, and the young volunteers. We find that many young people are searching for more meaningful interactions”
Paula and Nancy founded Connected Horse in 2015 after working with researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis to investigate whether their innovative model for therapeutic guided interactions with horses could improve quality of life for people living with dementia and their care partners. Five Star Equestrian was one of the first equestrian programs to partner with Connected Horse to provide the valuable workshops to the surrounding community. Cassandra Keith and Leah Feliz, Five Star Equestrian co-founders and trainers, encourage their students, like Grace, to volunteer with Connected Horse.
Today Grace and Tino are in the arena at Five Star with Beverly and Thomas, a couple in their 70’s. Beverly has felt anxious about Thomas’ memory loss and what the future will bring. This is their second session in a three-weekend program in which they learn to relax by bringing their awareness to their breath and the sights, sounds, and smells of the expansive equestrian center nestled in the rolling yellow hills of Pleasanton, California. They say that having this time with the facilitators and horses has been meaningful to them and Beverly says that it has helped her to see Thomas being active and trying something new. Being with the horses has reminded her to slow down, to be in the moment with Thomas, and that has brought a sense of calm, reassurance, and joy.
Today is their first meeting with Tino.
Grace describes the many sides of Tino’s character. “He is as an intense competitor who wants to win and knows when he has done well,” she says. “But he is also a very calm contributor to Connected Horse. He’s a really, really big horse. I think the participants get kind of nervous from having to work with such a big horse initially. But once you get to know him, he’s really sweet. He’s in your pocket. He’s kind of like a big dog.” The idea that a big, powerful horse can also be kind and gentle often sparks reflections from participants. Grace remarks how two seemingly opposite things can both be true.
Grace remembers one of the early experiences that she and Tino had with a participant in the Connected Horse program who was attending with her husband. “She was hesitant about reaching out to touch him, to halter and walk with him and groom him because he is so big. She was intimidated. So, he wasn’t sure he totally trusted her. She led him with her husband and her granddaughter. That was such a beautiful moment. He would just look over at them to make sure he was walking at the right pace. When she stopped, he would stop and he’d nudge her to make sure she was ok. I could just tell that he cared about her in that moment and I could tell he was doing something that made him happy and her happy.”
Gaining trust and connection, recognizing the power of both giving and receiving of care and the mutual benefit of being connected, are hallmarks of the workshops. Equestrians understand the importance of this connection as well.
Five Star co-owner Leah Feliz says, “It is invaluable for these young riders to have the opportunity to participate in a situation where people who struggle every day are able to break through and overcome many obstacles that, some would say, are impossible to overcome. It is equally valuable for these riders to understand that no matter how great the struggle might be, people of all ages can achieve amazing and often unexpected things. Riding is an extremely challenging sport and the ability to communicate with these horses is critical to the success of an equestrian .”
Beverly and Thomas are smiling together as they brush Tino and he turns to examine Beverly. Grace laughs along with them at the antics of her horse. She shows them how to clean Tino’s hooves. For the final exercise the handlers bring Tino into a round pen and Beverly and Thomas stand in the center practicing the calm breathing and mindfulness exercises they have learned over the past weekends. They can hardly contain their delight as Tino walks over to them of his own free will to enjoy more connection.
Connected Horse now has five of barn partners in California and Minden Nevada, upcoming workshop dates can be viewed here. CH is expanding its Facilitator Training Academy and Barn Partnerships program to reach more communities throughout the US. For more information about the workshops, facilitator trainings, and barn partnerships please contact: Info@ConnectedHorse.org