Equine Therapy for Dementia

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Horses are often used with children and teenagers who have emotional or developmental disabilities, and a new pilot study shows that spending time with horses can also ease symptoms in adults who have Alzheimer’s.

The Ohio State University collaborated with the adult day care center National Church Residences Center for Senior Health in downtown Columbus and the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, OH. Clients visited the farm weekly for a month with four of the farm’s gentle and calm horses. The interaction with the horses included grooming and bathing them as well as feeding them buckets of grass, all while being carefully monitored by staff. A second group of Alzheimer’s patients who volunteered for the study remained at the center and participated in other non-equine-related activities.
“We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can—absolutely,” Ohio State associate professor of social work Holly Dabelko-Schoeny told Science Daily. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior.”
Researchers used a Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale to measure the frequency of dementia-related behaviors. The scores for the participants who went to the farm were about one point lower than the scores for those who remained at the center, which suggests that those who interacted with the horses displayed better behavior through the day.
As a result of working with the horses, some of the clients who were historically withdrawn and subdued became more social and displayed smiles and even laughed. Researchers also used mouth swabs to test the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the patients’ saliva. Those who visited the farm showed a strong improvement in dementia-related behavior, which indicated that they enjoyed their trips to the farm. An unplanned side benefit was that the therapy increased physical activity for the participants as well, since some were inspired to push themselves physically by standing up out of wheelchairs or attempting to walk unassisted. The clients grew more physically active on each visit to the farm.
Learn more in “Caring for Horses Eases Symptoms of Dementia.”

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