Elder man stares at admiration at paint horse shining in a ray of light

Parkinson’s and "Healing with Horses"

I have Parkinson’s. My biggest issue is balance and I use hiking sticks to get around. When my wife and care partner suggested spending 2 or 3 hours together with a horse, I was more than skeptical.

I have never been around horses. My Parkinson’s symptoms and a program called “Healing with Horses” sounded like a giant oxymoron.

Benefits of the program

The Veterans Administration Clinic and the Holistic Therapeutic Equine Center here in Colorado Springs created a program to improve communication between caregivers and veterans with disabilities.

Communication between those with chronic diseases and disabilities and their caregivers can be difficult. It also frequently worsens over time. There are a number of ways people benefit from equine therapy, including:1

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Feeling less alone
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Feeling grounded and calm
  • Improved communication skills
  • Better leadership skills
  • Ability to accept your feelings
  • Gaining social support

Feeling skeptical

My wife has not been around horses since a bad dude ranch experience in the 50s. I’ve never been around a horse. (Full Disclosure: I have sometimes been labeled a portion of a horse's anatomy.) Multiple other people and multiple horses. What could possibly go wrong?

On the appointed day, my skepticism had risen and included a dose of anxiety. We arrived at a large enclosed arena and found ourselves in a group consisting of 3 other caregivers and patient duos, 10 or more volunteers, and 8 Paint horses.

We “met” the horses in their stalls. So far, so good. Horses are bigger up close and personal. They snort and throw their heads around. They do like scratching behind their ears.

Meeting our horse

After introductions, we were asked what we wanted to get out of the program. I said, "Due to my Parkinson’s, I wanted new experiences that cause me to think differently or create new pathways in my brain." I may have neglected to mention my deep skepticism and growing anxiety.

Each horse was introduced into the arena, rolled in the sand, and galloped around. When all the horses were together, interesting displays of non-verbal communication were easy to spot. The herd leader had a lot to “say.”

Judy and I were paired off with a horse named Roy and his owner and trainer Elaine. After a brief conversation about Roy, including which end to approach, we were handed currying brushes and began to form a relationship with Roy.

Elaine explained what Roy liked and how to communicate with him. He was not too sure about my hiking sticks but he largely ignored them after nuzzling them.

Within a few minutes, he had accepted us as temporary members of his herd. Lots of hands-on, lots of nuzzling, and other signs of acceptance from Roy.

Starting the exercises

We had a nodding understanding of Roy’s vocabulary and hand gestures. The next task was to lead him around the arena using any combination of those signals. With the lead curled in my left hand and 3 feet of lead in my right, we started out walking without my hiking sticks.

My gait is none too steady, but Roy adapted and stayed right with me. I found Roy responded well to my finger gestures until he had a moment of hesitation.

My pointer finger was pointed forward but my hand tremor caused shaking. Shaking my fist was Roy’s signal to backup so he patiently waited for me to get my act together. Fascinating!

Judy’s turn came with a catch. I had to walk behind Roy and Judy and tell her what to do without using any of Roy’s vocabulary. My directions weren’t perfect, but they successfully executed lots of directional signals. Time flew by and the morning was soon over.

What I learned

Turns out, I was wrong! People with Parkinson’s and horses work together in a positive manner. Horses are very intuitive and respond to body language. Working with Roy reinforced verbal and other methods of communication.

People with chronic diseases and disabilities frequently “shrink” inward and avoid new opportunities. Depression and anxiety often follow.

Working with the trainers and horses reminded us that those with chronic disease, disabilities, and their caregivers should take advantage of new opportunities. By safely engaging in new opportunities, we experience new social situations, engage the mind, and challenge the body.

This experience was also a reminder that communication with caregivers is more than verbal. Non-verbal communication may be just as important. A look, body language, or action can convey a different meaning than your words. As with Roy and my hand trembling, misunderstandings need to be addressed or you can’t move forward.

Judy and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience as did the other participants. Thanks to Roy, the kind volunteers,  the other participants, the Holistic Therapeutic Equine Center, and the VA for a fun and positive learning experience!

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