HACIENDA AT THE RIVER is the first senior facility in the U.S. to blend horses and assisted living.

The benefits of equine therapy are well-documented, and now residents can take advantage at the first senior-living and memory care community in the country to offer an on-site stable.

Though no horses call the property their permanent home, they are regular and welcome visitors to the community at their on-site stable at the Hacienda at the River. The Tucson, Arizona, retirement community is by Watermark, a company that manages over 50 retirement communities throughout U.S. Barbara Rector, who created the equine therapeutic programming called In the Presence of Horses, is the program coordinator and head wrangler. “Through interaction via touch, grooming, and riding horses, we can improve physical and emotional well-being,” she says. “Learning what horses can teach us about life helps awaken our capacity for self-empowerment.” Along with sessions in the stable, the horses are also walked throughout the 7½-acre community.

In the Presence of Horses program coordinator Barbara Rector with resident Phyllis Naber.

Rector, a pioneer in equine therapeutic programming, along with researchers at the University of Arizona Human-Animal Interaction Initiative are studying the science around the human-horse bond. They are assessing how the equine connection affects patient behavior, emotions, and overall health as well as how this connection can reduce or reverse agitation, depression, and social isolation.

Resident Phyllis Naber looks forward to her weekly sessions in which she gets to groom and talk to a 12-year-old mustang named Little Joe. “I love him. He and I could both stand here all day in the stable enjoying this special friendship,” she says. Commenting on her mom’s rapid transformation since working with the horses, Phyllis’s daughter, Sue Rein, notes, “The biggest improvement is in her conversational ability. She used to have trouble finding the right word; now you can see it comes pretty easily to her.”

“Several days a week, anyone at our community can join with our residents in assisted living and memory care to be together with the horses and Barbara’s team,” says the facility’s executive director, Brenda Ritter. “Our intent is to integrate everything we do here for the most effective care, and based on feedback from the professional world of psychologists, our equine therapeutic programming is at the forefront of treatment. We’ve seen a lot of life-enhancing moments already.”