Making Horses Accessible: Research and Reflections on the Riding in the Moment Program

By: Rebecca Lassell Ph.D. Candidate, OTR/L

Rebecca (Becca) Lassell is a Ph.D. Candidate in Occupation and Rehabilitation Science in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

During my first year of PhD school, I was offered an opportunity. The opportunity involved assisting in my colleague’s dissertation study of a program called Riding in the Moment that was created and implemented by Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center in northern Colorado. Riding in the Moment is an adaptive riding program that aims to enhance quality of life for people living with dementia. Adaptive riding, also called therapeutic riding, describes the skillful modification of riding and other horsemanship activities for people with diverse needs that are delivered by a trained instructor (Wood et al., n.d.). As an occupational therapist, avid horse lover and former horse owner, I jumped at the chance.  

The study involved documenting frequencies of participants’ observed emotional expressions and how they spent their time during Riding in the Moment compared to routine activities at their long-term care facility (Fields, Bruemmer, Gloeckner, & Wood, 2018). As I observed, I was struck by the stark contrasts of the participants’ experiences between the two environments. At the long-term care facility, participants were offered group activities, such as music and reminiscing, where they would often show interest and engage. Yet at other times, they appeared idle as they sat silently on the couch, watched TV, or even slept. In contrast, at the therapeutic riding center they appeared vibrant and animated as they groomed, pet, and rode horses. It was as if being at the therapeutic riding center with the horses awakened a part of themselves that was hidden at the long-term care facility. I was enthralled. Here’s a short clip of the program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xDaqy3ba6M&t=1s.

Photo by: Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center

The therapeutic riding center offered a social environment that seemed to be enriched by the interactions between staff, participants and horses. Specifically, staff socialized with participants and offered them choices for petting, grooming, or riding a horse (for those cleared by their physician). Participants could also opt to watch the ongoing activities and socialize. Staff supported participants’ choices for activities and modified the selected activities to enable their participation. The interactions between the participants, horses, and staff often brought smiles, conversation, and laughter. In fact, participants were observed to show more signs of pleasure and more frequently engage in conversations during Riding in the Moment when compared to routine activities at their long-term care facility (Fields et al., 2018). Later, I decided to devote my dissertation to the study of Riding in the Moment.

Under the mentorship of Dr. Wendy Wood, the Director of Research at the Temple Grandin Equine Center at Colorado State University, my dissertation has focused on the scientific development of Riding in the Moment. My work has involved creating a data-driven logic model of Riding in the Moment to inform its replication and refinement (Lassell, Fields, Busselman, Hempel, & Wood, 2019). More recently, in partnership with Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center, the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, Dementia Together, Banner Health, and the Larimer County Office on Aging, we expanded the population previously studied to include people living with dementia in the community, and invited their family members to participate, to learn about their experiences of the program. In addition, my work has included piloting short-term outcome measures and developing and piloting an adaptive gardening comparison condition in partnership with the Fort Collins Senior Center and Ashley Krueger, the Education Coordinator at the Gardens on Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado. Findings will be reported in forthcoming manuscripts.

Tamara Merritt, the Executive Director of Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center shared:

For many of us working in the therapeutic riding industry, we have long recognized the tangible benefits of adaptive riding for people with disabilities.  Now, thanks to Colorado State University and researchers like Becca Lassell, we are beginning to develop a body of scientific evidence that quantifies the specific benefits and unique elements that adaptive riding provides.  All of us at Hearts & Horses have been delighted to collaborate in a study of our Riding in the Moment program. 

My colleague, Dr. Beth Fields at University of Wisconsin-Madison is currently developing implementation and curriculum manuals for Riding in the Moment. The project is a collaborative effort among University of Wisconsin-Madison, Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center, Three Gaits, Inc. Stoughton Senior Center, and the Aging & Disability Resource Center of Winnebago County.

As I reflect on my experience conducting research of Riding in the Moment, I am reminded of the importance of accessing activities that bring us joy and chances to connect within our communities. Riding in the Moment appears to be a means of forming connections with other humans and horses, all within the natural context of a barn or farm. The uplifting experiences that I’ve witnessed during the program inspired me to undertake this work. It is my hope that our research might enable more people living with dementia to access activities with horses—and as a researcher, I am passionate about exploring the ways in which participating in these activities may shape well-being.

Acknowledgments

I would like to gratefully acknowledge:

  • The Hearts & Horses Therapeutic Riding Center and Tamara Merritt for contributing to this blog post
  • The Carl and Caroline Swanson Foundation and the Office of the Vice President for Research, Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships at Colorado State University for generously funding my research
  • Dr. Wendy Wood, my mentor for guiding and supporting me on my PhD journey
  • Dr. Beth Fields for introducing me to Riding in the Moment and for her continued support and friendship
  • My team members from the Enriched Aging research team for providing guidance for my most recent study of Riding in the Moment

References

Fields, B., Bruemmer, J., Gloeckner, G., & Wood, W. (2018). Influence of an Equine-Assisted Activities Program on Dementia-Specific Quality of Life. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 33(5), 309–317. https://doi.org/10.1177/1533317518772052

Lassell, R., Fields, B., Busselman, S., Hempel, T., & Wood, W. (2019). A logic model of a dementia-specific program of equine-assisted activities. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 9(2).

Wood, W., Alm, K., Benjamin, J., Thomas, L., Anderson, D., Pohl, L., & Kane, M. (n.d.). Uniform Terminology for Services that Incorporate Horses to Benefit People: A Consensus Document. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Under review).

Previous Research of Riding in the Moment

  • Fields, B., Bruemmer, J., Gloeckner, G., & Wood, W. (2018). Influence of an Equine-Assisted Activities Program on Dementia-Specific Quality of Life. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 33(5), 309–317. https://doi.org/10.1177/1533317518772052
  • Fields, B., Wood, W., & Lassell, R. (2019). Impact of a dementia-specific program of equine-assisted activities: providers’ perspectives. Quality in Ageing and Older Adults.
  • Lassell, R., Fields, B., Busselman, S., Hempel, T., & Wood, W. (2019). A logic model of a dementia-specific program of equine-assisted activities. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 9(2).

For more information contact: Rebecca Lassell, Rebecca.lassell@colostate.edu

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