Health Info & Resources for Seniors
Would you believe that horses can help people with Alzheimer’s? Can you imagine a horse or pony decreasing anxiety and agitation? Do you know that a visit to a horse farm -- grooming, walking or even taking selfies with a pony -- can create a calming effect in a dementia sufferer that lingers long after the patient returns home? Can you imagine doing stretching exercises by leaning against a horse’s massive body?
Lori Epler, occupational therapist from Easton, PA, has seen all of this for herself in her role as cofounder of the Senior Saddlers program at Apollo Farms, Ltd. in Palmerton, PA. Senior Saddlers is an equine therapy program Epler created with Apollo Farms owner, championship rider and trainer Delia A. Apollo. With Senior Saddlers, which is primarily for dementia patients and people with limited mobility, participants groom, feed and interact with horses and ponies in a supervised setting as part of their occupational and physical therapy.
According to Epler, the general benefits for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who participate in Senior Saddlers are decreased anxiety, increased activity, balance (reaching), and social interaction itself. For many, exposure to horses brings back memories of childhood, giving comfort through reminiscing.
Epler says, “I’m amazed at the reaction of people around these huge, gentle animals. There is a significant relaxation benefit.” She recalls one patient who came to Apollo farms very emotional, crying and agitated, but smiling and relaxed when she left the barn. This lady progressed quickly to walking a mini-pony and eventually became “enamored” with the largest horse at the farm. She was unafraid of the large horse because she had first been given the opportunity to become comfortable with the mini pony.
Safety is a critical part of the Senior Saddlers program. In their initial interaction with the horses, participants are taught the basic safety rules of being around horses: Never walk behind a horse and never put your feet close to them. Epler explains that therapists practice safety measures with the participants, who are always supervised. She adds that horses are intuitive animals that remain calm when they sense that calmness is needed.
Equine therapy has long been used for children, teens and adults with anxiety, autism, addiction and other disorders. More recently, studies have shown that spending time with horses eases symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia.
A collaboration between Ohio State University, an equine therapy center and an adult daycare center found that people with Alzheimer’s were able to safely groom, feed and walk horses under supervision—and that the experience buoyed their mood and made them less likely to resist care or become upset later in the day according to Equus Magazine (tinyurl.com/yxtpja3j).
Epler and Apollo develop therapy programs for Senior Saddlers based on participants’ individual needs. Apollo Farms is completely handicap accessible and can accommodate persons with walkers. Fees for equine therapy are based on individual requirements. Senior Saddlers also transports ponies offsite for therapy sessions at memory care and other senior facilities.
Apollo Farms is full of options for being outdoors and staying active. It offers yoga classes with ponies for all ages. Class members practice yoga in the serenity of a pasture while two miniature ponies wander about peacefully, creating an atmosphere that promotes stress reduction and relaxation.
Additionally, the farm offers therapeutic programs for youth, a full array of riding lessons for all ages, and horse training and boarding. Visitors can go fishing in the pond and enjoy nature in a beautiful setting. You can also follow the story of April, Apollo Farms’s first pony to give birth, and see baby Devon take his first steps at tinyurl.com/y6rqvj48.