Racehorses – or even fountains – can have a positive impact on the lives of people with dementia.
Hazel Courtley has seen at first hand, as community engagement manager at the National Horseracing Museum, the beneficial effect that meeting a retired racehorse can have for visiting dementia groups.
Whether it is bringing a distant memory back to life, or simply the “multi-sensory” experience of standing by or stroking one of the thoroughbreds housed in the museum stables and paddock, the moments are precious.
Courtley is among staff at the museum, based at Palace House in Newmarket, who help people with dementia get the most from their visits – meeting the horses, including former top sprinter Kingsgate Native, and then chatting with one another over tea and cake in the on-site cafe, the ‘Tack Room’.
In partnership with the Newmarket Dementia Action Alliance, staff also seek to take the museum out into the community – taking slides of the Palace House site and equine inhabitants to show care-home residents.
It was on one of those trips that Courtley was surprised and delighted to discover that vivid memories can often be stirred apparently at random.
“We’ve gone out into care homes, where obviously you may get a percentage of people there with dementia,” she said.
“We show photographs of this site as it used to be, because it is quite historic.
“I remember showing a slide of a fountain that dates back to the Edwardian period, and a gentleman there absolutely lit up and remembered where there were goldfish around him – and remembered pinching one of the goldfish.
“He was very, very animated just by seeing that picture of the fountain. It’s different triggers for different people.”
Many others, of course, are simply enchanted by the presence of the hand-picked horses.
“We belong to the Newmarket Dementia Action Alliance,” Courtley added.
“A lot of organisations have signed up to that, with a view of making Newmarket a more dementia-friendly town.
“As part of that, we’ve done quite a lot of awareness training with our staff – and we’ve been working with the Dementia Café at All Saints Church, just down the road.
“We have ex-racehorses here, and (the groups) come and engage with the horses and go to the café – that’s been the focus of the experience, rather than museum galleries.
“That’s what the café felt their members would benefit most from.
“We work with the Retraining of Racehorses charity, so they’re ex-racehorses and are obviously carefully chosen for the visitor site to be fine in this sort of environment.”
The sights, sounds and smells may not linger in all memories – but the hope is that the benefits are nonetheless long-lasting.
“It is about trying to create positive experiences which is the most important thing,” said Courtley.
“People might not necessarily remember exactly an experience they have, but obviously they will retain the emotion from it.
“Where they meet the horses, it’s quite a multi-sensory experience. They can stroke the horses, there are the sounds and the smells.
“Then there is the café, and that social experience as well – just being out and about, drinking tea and eating cake and doing those quite normal things but in a different setting.”
Coronavirus lockdown restrictions put the visits on hold – but as measures ease, following the reopening of the museum to the public this month, the intention is to re-engage fully and perhaps welcome groups from significantly further afield too.
Courtley added: “We would have been doing more last year. But obviously with lockdown, it’s been a bit tricky, and groups haven’t necessarily been meeting.
“Once they are happy to come out again, then we hope to pick up and develop it a bit more. We’re in quite early stages, I’d say, but it’s nice to know we have something we can offer that is of benefit.
“It’s lovely to see them engage with the horses and enjoy the visit.”
Museum staff have been trained to help make the most of the interactions – and handle the unexpected challenges too, which may crop up when a group arrives.
“It’s trying to have a general awareness, but also an awareness of your site – where potentially there might be challenges,” she said.
“They include in (the training) a very good film that shows somebody just getting ready to try to leave the house, and what that experience might look like for someone with dementia.
“It’s getting people to try to understand that perspective really, and what the challenges might be.
“(It can be) quite simple things – if you’ve got a black mat on the floor, for example, near a door, for somebody with dementia that could appear to be maybe a hole.”
That exchange of practical information, for the everyday lives of staff and their own friends and family too, is perhaps an unintended consequence of the dementia groups’ visit.
It is not only the visitors whose quality of life can be enhanced, as Courtley explains.
“It’s always so nice for us if a visit here can have a really positive impact on somebody’s well-being,” she said.
“(But) it is also awareness raising, and part of that is trying to see the world through the eyes of somebody who might be experiencing dementia.”
* The National Horse Racing Museum is open from Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am – 5pm. For information about visiting see www.nhrm.co.uk