Therapy Involving Horses Offers Hope For Alzheimer’s Patients

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online
Numerous studies have shown that physical, emotional and cognitive therapy involving domestic animals can be very therapeutic, and new research from The Ohio State University has found that interactive therapy with horses can bring relief to people with Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the study team’s report, published in the journal Anthrozoös, people with Alzheimer’s were able to groom, feed and walk horses with assistance and these activities immediately boosted their mood and made them more agreeable later in the day. Irritability and resistance to care are two major symptoms of the cognitive disease.
“We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can—absolutely,” said study author Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at OSU. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior.”
“Our focus is on the ‘now.’ What can we do to make them feel better and enjoy themselves right now? Even if they don’t remember it later, how can we help in this moment?” she added.
In the study, eight Alzheimer’s patients agreed to break with their regular regimen and take a bus to the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, Ohio. Eight other patients stayed behind at the healthcare facility and were given other activities.
At the center, patients spent time with horses under the direction of National Church Residences caretakers, as well as staff and students from OSU.
The clients stopped at the farm once a week for an entire month, to ensure that every individual had four visits overall. They groomed the horses, gave them a bath, walked them, and provided them buckets of grass. The four horses were picked for their mild dispositions and calmness when dealing with new people and new circumstances.
To monitor behavior, the scientists used a rating system called the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale, involving staff at the center tracking when volunteers fidgeted, brushed aside care, became annoyed on days they visited the farm or remained at the center.
The scientists saw noticeable signs that the clients had enjoyable experiences during their time on the farm. Even volunteers who generally acted withdrawn became fully involved in the experience.
The study team also assessed the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the patients’ saliva, which was extracted with mouth swabs. For volunteers with less significant dementia, the scientists saw a boost in cortisol levels, possibly as a result of “good stress” of simply being in a new scenario, they said.
Study author Gwendolen Lorch, assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine at OSU, suspected that taking Alzheimer’s patients out to a peaceful rural area may have also had a beneficial effect.
“They found the quietness and smells of the country very relaxing and restful. This was in contrast to their normal day care environment and their intercity dwelling,” Lorch said. “It is difficult to tell what factors made this successful, but we do know that it was most likely a combination of events.”
A study published last week revealed that therapy with horses also helped school kids reduce their stress levels.
Published in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, the study found that when school kids work with horses they have significantly lower levels of stress hormones throughout their day. The researcher said these findings could help implications for preventative care since high levels of stress hormones are linked to physical and mental ailments.