She hadn’t spoken a word for three months…then she interacted with “Ozzy, the therapy horse”, and she started telling the stories of her life.
Tracy Owen of Equine Therapy Services, a mobile Equine Therapy Program which serves the senior population of our community, relates the touching story of one of her senior clients. “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,” Tracy said. “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 “in the moment” to access the experiences of their pasts 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 eighteen years young still serves. His quiet, Quarter Horse nature suits his current assignment perfectly.
Ozzy Out Serving the Community
“We never know how many seniors we’ll have at an event. 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,” Tracy explains. “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.
“Ozzy is just so wonderful around the seniors,”
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 does have 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?”
YOU do, Tracy, and the community thanks you for it!
Photos: Courtesy of Equine Therapy Services