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Memories triggered by horse’s mane, muzzle in new program

Nancy Urban, right, who has Alzheimer's disease, with

Nancy Urban, right, who has Alzheimer's disease, with her husband, Glen, and senior care companion Natasha Kellerman at Spririt's Promise horse center in Riverhead on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Many things can spark a memory — sometimes it’s a nudge from a whiskered muzzle and the touch of a flowing mane.

A new program that unites horses and people is bringing back memories and a new calm for those with memory loss from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The Bay Shore-based Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center this fall started equine therapy sessions at Spirit’s Promise in Riverhead.

“There are those missing pieces that we can still draw out of them,” Mary Ann Malack-Ragona, executive director of the center, said.

Earlier this month, at the program’s last session of the year, volunteer Diane Eissler guided Nancy Urban’s hand as she brushed the mane of a horse named Elvis. Urban, 58, leaned into the horse’s muzzle, pressing her nose against his.

Later, even as she struggled to find the words, Nancy spoke excitedly to her husband, Glen, 65, about her childhood friend’s horses and about the couple’s honeymoon, when they rode horses together in Montauk. At their Central Islip home, Nancy has become quiet and withdrawn since being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago, Glen said.

“When she’s there with the horses, she’s looking like her old self,” he said.

The program is free to patients and their caregivers, and follows a successful art therapy program through the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

“They may not be able to speak, they may be deteriorating cognitively, but in their hearts there’s things that come out in these programs,” Malack-Ragona said. Often, the programs also have calming effects on aggressive behaviors, she said.

The first equine session was held in September, and by this month’s session participation had grown threefold. “We are seeing smiles where smiles are very limited and we are seeing a sense of recognition and interest where there is typically little,” Malack-Ragona said.

The sessions also help weary homebound caregivers, she said.

Sandra Daudier, 57, brought her father, Royston Henry, 89, to the program because the Trinidad native had spent his life as a jockey, trainer and jockey agent. Her father didn’t have much initial response to the horses but Daudier said they would come back.

“It’s an outing for me too,” said Daudier, who helps care for her father in Floral Park.

Malack-Ragona has three sessions scheduled for the spring and may extend them into the summer, depending on funding, she said. The center pays for transportation, aides and lunches for all participants. The cost was $1,600 for the November session.

The center may get some assistance from the EQUUS Foundation, a national nonprofit based in Westport, Connecticut, that strives to protect horses and strengthen the horse-human bond, and has taken an interest in the Alzheimer’s program. Foundation founder and President Lynn Coakley said the organization is hoping to make the resource center’s program a model for Alzheimer’s organizations across the country and may also be able to provide grants.

Spirit’s Promise is also seeking grant money from the foundation. The 26 horses at Spirit’s Promise often come to the farm abused, neglected, abandoned and sometimes saved at the11th hour from slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.

Marisa Striano, 54, started Spirit’s Promise in 2011 and several years ago began equine therapy programs.

“People would knock on my door and say, ‘Can I hug a horse, I’ve had a really bad day,’ ” Striano said. “So I said I’m going to start a program where people can get out of their heads for a little while.”

With her daughter Jessie Siegel’s help, “Promise of a New Spirit” was created. Using licensed therapists, the program has had participants that included veterans with PTSD and grieving parents. Horses are gentle creatures, Striano said, that act as mirrors to human emotions, offering healing and comfort.

The horses nudge the patients and seem to relish the attention, Malack-Ragona said.

“They want to be recognized, these horses,” Malack-Ragona said. “And so do these people who have dementia; they want to be recognized as individuals and I think that’s what we’re doing for them.”

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