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For Baltimore County seniors, interacting with horses is therapeutic

Residents of Glen Meadows Retirement Community visit the horses at Notchcliff Farm. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

Speedy is old in horse-years. At age 30, the quarter horse is among the most senior at Notchcliff Farm.

But he’s not too old to take his owner on trail rides and entertain visitors who run their fingers through his chestnut-brown coat. Movement keeps him young.

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It’s the same for residents of Glen Meadows Retirement Community, the senior living complex that overlooks the farm in Glen Arm. The farm began partnering with Glen Meadows about a year ago to enrich seniors’ lives with visits that benefit them physically, socially, intellectually and spiritually.

“It’s not just about getting residents out to walk,” said Glen Meadows fitness director Jennifer Perkovich. “It’s any kind of movements — petting the horses, you know, just getting outside in nature, which sometimes they wouldn’t come out unless there’s a purpose.”

Though the seniors who dwell at Glen Meadows can see the 130-year-old barn from their community, many hadn’t visited before a trip on a cool April morning. About a dozen Glen Meadows residents met horses on the farm and toured the historic barn, once the main structure on a dairy farm.

“It’s interesting to see the farm from this perspective,” said Bobbie Hess, 79, who has lived at Glen Meadows for about six years.

She slipped a treat to Orion, a 16-year-old white quarter horse, who nibbled the snack from the palm of her hand.

“It’s my first opportunity to be up close and personal with horses,” she said.

Notchcliff Farm is owned by Glen Meadows, and barn manager Elaina Thomas leases it to house 19 horses — including five thoroughbreds who are retired from racing. Others participate in show circuits, and some are pleasure horses that riders like Jo Yeatts, who owns Speedy, take around the area’s trails and parks.

“As we would ride, we would notice that the seniors from Glen Meadows would be outside waving to us,” Thomas said. “And there was a connection there.”

Jo’s mother, Mary Yeatts, had visited the farm to see her “grandhorse,” Speedy, before she moved to Glen Meadows four years ago.

“It’s just nice to be out in fresh air,” Mary Yeatts said. “The whole crew comes out and they put on a nice riding expedition for us to view, which is very nice.”

Although the Glen Meadows residents aren’t riding horses themselves, they feed and brush them, watch farriers change their horseshoes and view riding demonstrations by the horses’ owners.

“Petting the horses and just interacting with them is similar to like working with service dogs or service cats,” Perkovich said. “We’ll have people bring their dogs and cats to Glen Meadows, but you can’t bring the horses inside to the residents.”

Being around horses is enough to give their visitors an emotional lift, said Kelly Rodgers, program director and certified master therapeutic riding instructor for Maryland Therapeutic Riding, a Crownsville nonprofit. She said the benefits are instantaneous.

“I don’t think it means you have to be on the horse,” Rodgers said. “So many of our volunteers say it’s therapeutic to them … being able to interact with [the horses] and learn from them — they teach us so many things.”

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Her organization offers services including therapeutic riding, speech and occupational therapy, and equine-facilitated psychotherapy. The group serves clients ranging from toddlers to octogenarians.

“There’s nothing like being able to connect with a 1,200-pound animal for your confidence,” Rodgers said.

Equine-assisted therapies have been shown to help people with both physical disabilities and psychological conditions including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. In particular, therapeutic horseback riding effectively improves balance, muscle symmetry, psycho-social factors, quality of life and other areas for people with disabilities, according to a study published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation in October 2017.

Horses are often used as therapy animals because they mirror what humans working with them are feeling, Rodgers said. But only certain horses have the temperament needed to become certified as therapy horses.

“It’s pretty amazing to see how intuitive they are and how that can relate to life skills,” Rodgers said. “They are very intuitive, so they often will be able to sense and feel what their human counterparts are felling — whether that’s sadness or anxiety.”

Notchcliff Farms’ horses are not certified therapy horses, and the seniors’ visits are not formal therapy sessions. But there are still benefits to spending time with horses, Rodgers said. The horses at Notchcliff Farms revel in the attention when their senior neighbors come to visit, owners like Jo Yeatts said. And the Glen Meadows residents return home up the hill with lighter spirits.

Phoenix, a 4-year-old black-and-white horse, munched on grass while Glen Meadows residents brushed and petted him. The strapping warmblood horse — a cross between a draft horse and a quarter horse — is among the farm’s younger horses. His owner, 16-year-old Chloe Wagner, raised him from a 9-month-old colt.

She said there’s a lot to learn from the four-legged animals.

“You have to really get trust from them, and you wouldn't think that. And a lot of people rely on them when they become service animals,” Wagner said. “You learn a lot from them, too... It’s a lot of training, really a friendship type thing.”

Some Glen Meadows residents know how deep those bonds can run, and visiting Notchcliff Farm has helped them recall equine friendships they shared when they were younger.

“Once we started having the seniors over, I realized that many of them had themselves owned horses,” Thomas said. “I had a woman wrap her arms around my horse and say, ‘I just want to smell. I remember that smell.’ And I knew exactly what she was talking about.”

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