Why Some of Watermark Retirement’s Newest Residents are Horses

Imagine, for a moment, a group of senior living residents riding their own horses daily via an on-site stable and on-staff trainers.

That may soon be a common sight at the Hacienda at the River, a new assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and rehabilitation community operated by Watermark Retirement Communities in Tucson, Arizona.

Tucson-based Watermark currently owns and manages 40 senior living communities across the country, and it plans to add another nine in the next two months. Throughout the years, Watermark President and CEO David Barnes and Chairman David Freshwater have had plenty of ideas for how to make the senior living sector more innovative—like equine therapy—but they haven’t had the chance to implement all of the concepts into their existing properties.


Happily, The Hacienda at the River, which opened to residents this spring, represents the “maiden voyage” for a variety of the ideas Barnes and Freshwater have been bouncing around for some time, they told Senior Housing News.

“We don’t know how successful [the ideas will] be,” Freshwater admitted.

So far, however, the combination of equine therapy and data-centric research at The Hacienda has managed to intrigue both academics and residents alike.


Horse therapy in ‘Old Tucson’

Due to The Hacienda’s unique “Old Tucson” feel, having residents’ horses actually live on the community’s campus was almost a no-brainer, Freshwater told SHN.

The land on which Hacienda was built “has traditionally been equestrian,” Freshwater added, noting that it has been a dude ranch and home to riding stables in the past.

“My wife trained horses on this site,” he commented.

Barnes and Freshwater had also read a couple of articles on how interaction between humans and animals—specifically, interactions between older humans and horses—had positive effects on the humans. They realized that Tucson was home to many horse therapy programs, but they were mostly for children.

So, Barnes and Freshwater brought Barbara Rector, an equine therapy pioneer who works at the University of Arizona, on board to create the “In the Presence of Horses” program at The Hacienda.

Now, Rector leads therapeutic equine programs at on-site stables where residents touch, brush, groom and ride their own horses, or horses owned by Watermark. The programs are meant to help promote residents’ physical and emotional well-being, and Rector believes The Hacienda at the River is the only senior living community in the country to offer these equine therapy programs on-site, according to a Watermark press release.

To start, the equine therapy program will be available to assisted living and memory care residents, but Barnes and Freshwater hope it will eventually be opened up to patients in rehab.

‘Real results with real data’

The Hacienda’s innovation doesn’t stop at equine therapy.

Among other forward-thinking ideas, the University of Arizona’s McKnight Brain Institute has a designated space at The Hacienda that it will use as a cognitive assessment center, Freshwater explained. There, both Hacienda residents and the public can receive cognitive assessments, which the University of Arizona can incorporate into future longitudinal studies.

“Longitudinal studies are very, very difficult for universities to do,” Freshwater said. “We’ll help them with that.”

Eventually, studies conducted at Watermark will produce “real results with real data” that Watermark would be happy to share with the rest of the senior housing industry, Barnes said.

The hope, ultimately, is that The Hacienda will pioneer concepts that could “become a part of every community in America, not just Watermark’s,” Freshwater added.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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