WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Slowly, Kim Rice approached the horse waiting for him in a Williamsburg stable, brush in hand. His eyes are wide, his smile big and his mind deeply concentrating.

Month ago, on the verge of being recommended for hospice care, the 91-year-old retired soldier didn't like to leave his room. He barely ate.

But on this day, Rice was ready to ride.

And when he made his way up on the horse he so lovingly groomed, the stable erupted into applause.

Older adults, like Rice, suffering from memory loss or other illnesses are finding ways to reconnect with the skillful help of the professionals at Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center thanks to a unique new program called Senior Saddles.


Senior Saddles is a program in partnership with Patriots Colony at Williamsburg, a Riverside Health System retirement community. Participants are residents of Patriots Colony, marking the first time Dream Catchers has offered a program that focuses on the aging population.

The program began this spring with the purpose of teaching riding skills, however, participants have benefitted from much more. Senior Saddle participants have gained improvement in physiological states such as anxiety, depression and irritability and in behavioral states such as agitation, aggression and sleep disturbances. In addition, participants have experienced progress with their physical needs of movement, balance and coordination.

"These moments are moments of joy that are hard to duplicate," said Debbie Whybra, the activities coordinator for Patriots Colony during the latest ride. "The outcomes here have been so incredible. I have been working with older adults for 30 years and this is my favorite program."

One resident, typically very unsteady on her feet, rides a horse with enough balance to extend her arms. Another who lives with memory loss sits confidently in the saddle.

And since starting to ride more than six weeks ago, instructors from Dream Catchers and staff from Patriots Colony noted that Rice isn't as anxious. He comes out more. Smiles.

"This is the first such program we're aware of that allows participants to actually ride the horses," said Nancy Paschall, Executive Director of Dream Catchers. Non-riders can benefit simultaneously from equine-assisted ground activities such as grooming, petting, or feeding the horses. "Riverside Health System is an active longstanding supporter of Dream Catchers and we're excited to be able to offer Senior Saddles to the dedicated residents of Patriots Colony."

Dream Catchers, with its 22 acres and nearly 20 service horses and 12 Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) Certified Instructors, is one of more than 800 centers that provides therapeutic riding and other horse-related activities to children and adults with special needs, and now, older adults.

The therapy stems from years of study and research that shows horseback riding improves a rider's physical, mental and psychological states. A rider will work his or her flexibility, balance, motor skills and muscle strength, as well as improve social skills, self-esteem, patience and independence.

It's about connecting with the animal, with their bodies and with their mind.


"This is a quality of life function," said Paschall, who joined Dream Catchers in 2007 and has been working with horses for more than 30 years. "We give them a great, quality experience and we see how it improves their lives."

Some of the Patriots Colony residents ride. Some don't. All benefit from the program.

It's all done at their own pace and comfort because "we want to maintain as much independence, balance and cognition as possible," said PATH Certified Instructor Janet Mayberry Laughlin.

Up next? Paschall hopes to bring some of the horses to Patriots Colony, offering even more residents a chance to grow and enhance their lives through horses.

About Patriots Colony:
Patriots Colony
was founded by a group of retired military officers, led by General Archie Cannon, USA, (Ret.), who saw the need for a community dedicated to those who shared the common bond of service to country. In 1994, the founders approached Riverside Health System, known for its medical expertise and being a leader in senior services, with their plans. With Riverside's medical and financial backing, Patriots Colony opened in 1996.

Today, Patriots Colony is a Continuing Care Retirement Community offering all levels of care on one expansive campus –from nursing level care to assisted and independent living.

In 2010, Patriots Colony completed a $5 million renovation to the Cannon Community Center, which included expanding the fitness center, and library as well as renovating the indoor poor and adding Archie's Tavern.. An attitude of continuous improvement extends as renovations to individual residences, common areas of the apartment building and Assisted Living.

Patriots Colony is sponsored by Riverside Health System, the leading provider of services to older adults in the Commonwealth of Virginia. With nearly a century of service in Eastern Virginia, Riverside provides residents with access to many supportive services and locations. Riverside's vision for older adults is to empower them to say, "as I age, I will control my destiny in a place of my choosing."

Patriots Colony's Health Care Services –including The Berkeley Assisted Living, Springhouse Memory Support and The Convalescent/Rehabilitation Center –are open to the public, whereas independent living is restricted to the following:

  • Retired and former (honorably discharged) officers of the seven uniformed services
  • Civilian employees of the federal government (with grade GS-7 &above)
  • Their spouses or widow(er)s

Learn more about Patriots Colony.

About Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center:
Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center is the premier therapeutic riding center between Richmond and Virginia Beach. Located in Toano, Virginia, Dream Catchers is a nonprofit organization hosting more than 120 therapeutic riding lessons each week to help children and adults with special needs reach their potential and make dreams come true.

For more information, visit www.dreamcatcherswilliamsburg.org or call 757-566-1775.


Published: June 6, 2014