BOYCE — The first thing Marjorie L. Youngs asked her three visitors on Thursday afternoon was, “Do any of you remember being here before?”
Shelby Yeakley smiled broadly and held up her hand. Not only did she remember her previous visit, but she was also looking forward to going back.
It was very important. Yeakley and his two companions, BJ Fawcett and Jane White, are residents of Shenandoah Valley Westminster-Canterbury retirement community and they live with dementia, a progressive neurological disease that impairs a person’s memory capacity.
Yeakley, Fawcett and White are among seven residents of the Westminster-Canterbury Memory Care Wing in Winchester whom Youngs welcomes him to Blue Ridge Center for Therapeutic Riding every week.
While at the non-profit center Almeda Farm at 749 Salem Church Road near Boyce, dementia patients spend time with horses that have been specially trained as therapy animals. The horses stand calmly as they are petted and cared for by their visitors, while volunteers from Westminster-Canterbury and the center chat with attendees and attempt to trigger memories of any previous experiences they may have had with horses horses.
Yeakley said she remembers her father on horseback and was afraid of animals when she was little. That fear was quickly allayed on Thursday by Chief, a 13-year-old American Paint gelding with a tan and white coat whose gentle disposition made Yeakley comfortable enough to groom his mane. For the next 45 minutes, her smile never wavered.
Fawcett and White struggled to remember their previous interactions with the horses, but they were happy Thursday to be in the moment. Fawcett stroked Dillon, a 20-year-old chestnut Liver gelding, and White paired up with Honey, a 21-year-old chestnut Hafflinger mare.
After a few minutes with Dillon, Fawcett began to recall his two or three previous visits to the center. When asked what she enjoyed most about those experiences, she smiled and replied, “Just being with the horses.”
“One in a million horse will make a good therapy horse,” Youngs said of looking at how well Dillon, Chief and Honey handled the three women’s attention.
Youngs said the idea for the center’s memory support program came about two years ago after she was contacted by a Westminster-Canterbury staff member who attended a conference which included a presentation on the therapeutic value to pair horses with people with dementia.
“They came out at the end of February  and we were going to do the sessions, but then COVID came along,” Youngs said.
The pandemic put everything on hold until January this year, when Youngs said Westminster-Canterbury again reached out and said they felt the COVID-19 threat had subsided enough for it to be finally sure to launch the program.
Before the memory support program launched earlier this spring, Youngs said she and volunteers at the center spent hours acclimating horses to wheelchairs and walkers to make sure they wouldn’t. would not be afraid of mobility aids. They also had to ensure that the horses would remain calm and receptive when interacting with strangers.
Every Thursday at 4 p.m., three of the seven residents of Westminster-Canterbury who participate in the Memory Support Program are transported to the center for a 45-minute session with the horses.
“This is our fifth session,” Youngs said Thursday. “For about 25, 30 minutes they interact with the horses – brushing, touching, talking. And then if there’s no one in the indoor arena at 4:30 p.m., we’ll do a little parade where we walk the horses and they go see them.”
Jillian Huhn, director of activities for Westminster-Canterbury residents with dementia, said the sessions had been remarkably productive.
“People with dementia don’t always remember events like this, but some of these guys come home and talk about it. It blows your mind,” Huhn said. “Even when we stop, they remember being here and it’s so cool, just amazing. It makes me want to cry.”
With such dramatic results, Youngs said she plans to start a new series of sessions this fall, and then possibly revise the memory care program next spring so participants can visit more often and forge stronger bonds with horses.
To learn more about the nonprofit Blue Ridge Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship and its programs to help people overcome mental, physical, and emotional challenges, visit brcth.org.