She hadn’t spoken a word for three months. Then she met Ozzy and started telling the stories of her life.
“She just wanted to touch Ozzy’s face, and as we guided her, she began to talk at length about her past and her stories with horses,” said Tracy Owen of Equine Therapy Services, a mobile equine therapy program serving California’s San Luis Obispo County’s senior population, recalling one her senior clients. “When she returned to her residence, the staff was amazed as they told us that this woman had been non-verbal for three months!”
Connecting with Alzheimer Patients
The true essence of life is experienced “in the moment”, and this is never more true than for Alzheimer patients. Often, all that they have is “right now”, because their memories have been locked away somewhere elusive and the future seems like a bleak proposition. Therapy can bring these people “into the moment” to access the experiences of their past and bring to life the present.
Tracy knows this first hand, as she slowly lost her own mother to Alzheimers. “When my mom started her journey with Alzheimers it wasn’t scary for me. I realized that mom needed an advocate. Serving seniors reminds me that we are all fragile people. It is apparent that people tend to not gravitate towards serving seniors, yet they have needs just like we all do.”
Tracy’s Inspiration and Ozzy’s Story
“The day after mom passed, I was cleaning out her room and the facility director approached me offering me a job. I was grateful for the offer, but wasn’t looking to work full-time. She then suggested I look into starting an Equine Therapy Program for seniors,” Tracy recalls. “It was something I had always wanted to do, but wasn’t sure how to get started. At that moment, my friend Sara, from Redwings Horse Sanctuary, called me. I told her my idea and she told me about Ozzy.”
Ozzy is a retired Border Patrol horse, who at 18 years young still serves. His quiet, Quarter Horse nature suits his current assignment perfectly. Tracy has owned him since 2014.
“When I got Ozzy, I started taking him places so he would get used to traveling and getting out and standing. I volunteer at the Prado Day Center so we would go there a lot! I worked on desensitizing him to walkers, wheelchairs, noises and having people around him.”
Ozzy Out Serving the Community
Ozzy and Tracy go out to events once or twice a month. She has a paid helper, Lydia Lawson, who has a therapy dog, and the pair also bring along hens and a tortoise.
“Ozzy is so big that he can be intimidating to some people,” Tracy said. “The other animals help generate conversation and interaction among the residents. Interaction is so important, as Alzheimers can be so alienating.
“We never know how many seniors we’ll have at an event,” she continued. “We go to the Villages and Syndey Creek busses residents to our session. We just have to relax and adjust to what the residents want to do. Some residents just want to sit and watch the animals and some want to experience more. Our sessions run 30-40 minutes with Ozzy standing still the whole time.”
Ozzy wears soft-ride therapeutic boots to ease the strain of standing for extended periods. He has been trained to stand at a walker. This walker is also a source of stabilization and safety for the clients. Tracy encourages participants to touch his neck and body but not bother his face too much.
“Ozzy is just so wonderful around the seniors,” Tracy expressed. “He just plants his feet and stands there. One time a lady in a large wheelchair really wanted to see his face. We got her as close as possible. At that moment Ozzy had an itch in his boot. He chose to hold his foot up instead of stomping or pawing as he knew to watch out for the lady.”
Making a Difference in the Moment
When Tracy first approached one Senior Care facility the director admitted that she couldn’t see how this therapy would have any impact. However, after just a few sessions she approached Tracy and stated, “After seeing you, the residents remember and recount their entire day!”
Interaction with animals has a unique way of bringing back to life memories that have been forgotten or even lost. One gentleman showed this to Tracy during a session.
“A former rancher came to one of our sessions. He just sat the whole time and watched. He verbalized that it was wonderful to be with the animals, then asked to hold a hen. He simply sat there stroking the hen and enjoying the reconnection with the animals…then he began to share his own ranching stories.”
It’s really quite remarkable the impact that therapy animals can have on the brain, recognition, memory and mood. The simple act of spending time with an animal can bring peace and focus to a mind that has been ravaged by disease. Alzheimers takes away much of the control and choice that make life worth living, and by giving this back to people, even for a short time, animal therapy encourages life.
The Equine Therapy Services Team
“I love what happens to these people. It’s just remarkable,” Lydia, Tracy’s helper, explains.
Tracy is a certified PATH instructor on top of receiving her Equine Specialist in Mental Health & Learning Certification through PATH International. She serves residents at the Villages and Sydney Creek, and meets with clients at Bellevue Santa Fe Charter School. She also works with CASA kids about once a month.
“I usually tear up on the way home, as I review each interaction, each face, each story, each difference the animals made in the moment for these seniors,” expressed Tracy. “We’re still in the beginning phase. Some venues pay me, but mostly it is just volunteer work. I need to get my non-profit status going or connect with a non-profit group.”
Tracy has a supportive husband and core group of friends who have encouraged her endeavor, which began in 2014. Her Bible study group raised the funds to purchase Ozzy, but she pays for his daily needs and travel to events out of her own pocket.
Tracy summarizes her experience with these words: “It’s been such a faith journey. I was so afraid. Who does this? Who takes a horse into a setting to be safe with seniors?”
About the Author
Sharon Jantzen is the owner and publisher of SLOHorseNews.net. Her riding experience started in Pony Club, with a little Hunter/Jumper thrown in, which branched out to Eventing and then settled into Dressage—mostly on the back of a Connemara. She has also shown Arabians in Dressage and is now “investigating” Cowboy Dressage on a Rocky Mountain Horse. Sharon enjoys trail rides and the wonder of San Luis Obispo County.