BOYCE — The first thing Marjorie L. Youngs asked her three visitors on Thursday afternoon was, “Do any of you remember being here before?”

Shelby Yeakley smiled broadly and raised her hand. Not only did she remember her previous visit, she had also been looking forward to returning.

This was a very big deal. Yeakley and her two companions, B.J. Fawcett and Jane White, are residents of the Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury retirement community and they are living with dementia, a progressive neurological condition that impairs a person’s ability to remember.

Yeakley, Fawcett and White are among seven residents of the memory care wing at Westminster-Canterbury in Winchester that Youngs welcomes to her Blue Ridge Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship every week.

While at the nonprofit center on Almeda Farm at 749 Salem Church Road near Boyce, the dementia patients spend time with horses that have been specially trained as therapeutic animals. The horses stand calmly while being stroked and groomed by their visitors, while volunteers from both Westminster-Canterbury and the center talk with the participants and attempt to trigger memories of any previous experiences they may have had with horses.

Yeakley said she remembered her father riding horses and that she was afraid of the animals when she was a girl. That fear was quickly allayed by Chief, a 13-year-old American Paint gelding with a tan and white coat whose gentle disposition made Yeakley comfortable enough to groom his mane. For the next 45 minutes, her smile never waned.

Fawcett and White had difficulty remembering their previous interactions with horses, but they were happy to live in the moment. Fawcett stroked Dillon, a 20-year-old gelding with a Liver chestnut coat, and White partnered with Honey, a 21-year-old Hafflinger mare with a chestnut coat.

After a few minutes with Dillon, Fawcett started to recall her previous two or three visits to the center. When asked what she liked best about the experiences, she smiled and said, “Just being with the horses.”

“One out of a million will make a good therapy horse,” Youngs said while watching how well Dillon, Chief and Honey handled the attention from the three women.

Youngs said the idea for the center’s Memory Support Program originated two years ago after she was contacted by a Westminster-Canterbury staff member who attended a conference that included a presentation about the therapeutic value of pairing horses with people who live with dementia.

“They came out at the end of February [2020] and we were going to do the sessions, but then COVID came,” Youngs said.

The pandemic put everything on hold until January of this year, when Youngs said Westminster-Canterbury reached out again and said they felt the COVID-19 threat had subsided enough that it would finally be safe to launch the program.

Before the Memory Support Program got underway earlier this spring, Youngs said she and the center’s volunteers spent hours acclimating the horses to wheelchairs and walkers to make sure they wouldn’t become spooked by the mobility aids. They also needed to be sure the horses would remain calm and receptive when interacting with strangers.

Every Thursday at 4 p.m., three of the seven Westminster-Canterbury residents who participate in the Memory Support Program are transported to the center for a 45-minute session with the horses.

“This is our fifth session,” Youngs said. “For about 25, 30 minutes, they interact with the horses — brushing, touching, talking. And then, if there’s no one in the indoor arena at 4:30, we’ll do a little parade where we walk the horses and they get to see them.”

Jillian Huhn, activities director for Westminster-Canterbury residents who are living with dementia, said the sessions have been remarkably productive.

“People that live with dementia can’t always remember events like this, but some of these guys come home and talk about it. It blows your mind,” Huhn said. “Even when we pull up, they remember being here and it’s so cool, just amazing. It makes me want to cry.”

With results this spectacular, Youngs said she intends to start a fresh set of sessions this fall, then possibly revise the Memory Care Program next spring so participants can visit more often and forge even stronger bonds with the horses.

To learn more about the nonprofit Blue Ridge Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship and its programs to help people overcome mental, physical and emotional challenges, visit brcth.org.

(1) comment

DTUphold

I wish they had something like this where my Grandma (Dad's Mom) lived. She had a form of Dementia and it was so very painful to watch. If there was a program like this in here area, maybe Dad or I could have gotten another chance to spend a couple minutes with the real her.

Thank you to Miss Youngs and her staff, and of course the horses, for this program.

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