A first-of-its-kind senior living community that incorporates equine therapy is under development on Tucson’s north side.

The Hacienda at the River is being built on River Road near Hacienda del Sol Road on 7.5 acres of former horse property. It will feature assisted living, memory care, rehabilitation, skilled nursing and hospice care.

The Tucson developers say they stumbled into the work of managing senior centers when they built their first facility, the Fountains at La Cholla, in 1987.

“When we built the Fountains, we did so as developers,” said David Freshwater, chairman and developer of Watermark Retirement Communities. “But, we were early in the game and couldn’t find managers, so we learned by necessity.”

Today, Watermark Retirement Communities has 38 senior living centers across the country and is evaluating ventures outside of the United States, said President and CEO David Barnes.

“All of our communities are different,” he said. “We never got into the cookie-cutter mentality.”

The Hacienda at the River is a homecoming for the duo and their second community in Tucson.

“The time was right and the land was perfect,” Freshwater said. “We’d read a lot about equestrian assistance and I loved this land’s long history with horses.”

But once again, the team was creating a new concept with “no script to follow,” Freshwater said with a smile.

They reached out to local experts and entered into several partnerships, including with equine therapist Barbara Rector, the University of Arizona College of Nursing’s Integrative Nursing Faculty Fellowship, geriatric specialist Dr. Steven Wool, the UA Center on Aging and Casa de la Luz hospice.

Instead of by caretakers, the Hacienda will be staffed with “nayas” who will engage with the residents throughout the day as they move from activity to activity. The word “naya” comes from the ancient language of classical Sanskrit and means a person of wisdom, a conductor and leader.

The Hacienda is expected to hire about 120 employees once it opens next year.

Calming influence

Co-founder of Therapeutic Riding of Tucson, Rector said she was intrigued when the developers contacted her about the new senior living project.

“As they were talking I had a vision — like a video clip — of how it would work,” she said. “It’s like the realization of a lifelong dream.”

The director of In the Presence of Horses, Rector teaches her team “to put the power of the horse to work.”

She is currently running focus groups with seniors who are interacting with horses at Raven Ranch.

One woman was grooming a big horse, stroking his shoulder, when she turned to Rector and said, “I’m 93 years old and had never touched a horse before. I feel like hugging him.”

Rector encouraged the woman to hug the horse. She put her arm around his chest and the horse turned its head and pulled her in.

“Well, we all just cried,” Rector said. “It’s been a miraculous experience.”

Asked how she would pick the horses for this particular project, given that many participants may be frail, Rector said she doesn’t do the picking.

“Horses must volunteer to do this sort of work,” she said. “A therapy horse is overriding very natural instincts. For example, horses are very claustrophobic and grooming and walking with groups is not always comfortable.”

Rector watches the horses to see how they react to the senior visitors. The ones that want to participate step forward.

“Whenever someone asks me, ‘How do you know what horse is right?’ I say, ‘I listen to the horse.’”

Her curriculum, Adventures in Awareness, draws from lengthy research on horses’ ability to calm and soothe humans.

There are other equine therapy programs in the country for seniors that involve field trips to visit and watch horses play, Rector said.

“What’s radically different and innovative about this approach is that the horses will be on site,” she said.

Her program will involve watching, walking, grooming and — with medical clearance — some riding of the horses.

The Hacienda will contract with Adventures in Awareness and Rector will provide the staff.

“I intend to be a very hands-on facilitator,” she said. “This is a validation of the significance of horses in people’s lives.”

Aside from the program horses, horses owned by residents of the Hacienda can be boarded there and visited as requested.

The setting

The development will feature four “Hacienda homes” that have between 15 and 18 suites with a central kitchen, dining and living room. A separate building, “The Springs,” will have 64 private and two semiprivate suites with short- and long-term rehab, as well as hospice care through Casa de la Luz.

Barnes said the facilities are designed to feel more like a hotel than a hospital.

“We got rid of things that are institutional,” he said. “Medical carts, for example, are gone. Meds are in the person’s room in a locked cabinet.”

While visiting some of the top-rated senior communities around the country, Barnes said he noticed a pattern.

“They were built to be efficient for staff rather than what’s right for the residents,” he said. “At one facility, I saw residents lined up to get their pills, then they were led into the dining room, then weighed on a scale that was placed at the exit,” Barnes said. “It was like an assembly line.”

Freshwater said he purposely chose an architect who had not built senior communities before to avoid an institutional feel.

He teamed with Tucson-based Indevco Architecture and RTKL Association of Los Angeles for the design of the property, which will be a cross between guest ranch and boutique hotel.

The Weitz Co. is the general contractor and the shared courtyards and therapeutic gardens are being designed by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects.

Prices start at about $4,000 a month. The facility is expected to start receiving residents next year.

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at grico@tucson.com