Such activity is known as equine therapy. It uses interaction with horses to stimulate emotional well-being in an array of disorders, including depression, cerebral palsy and autism. According to the research team, it is a common treatment for children and teenagers with emotional and developmental disorders and involves grooming, feeding and walking horses.
But in this latest study, published in the journal Anthrozoös, the researchers found that the therapy could be effective for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The main symptom of Alzheimer’s is memory loss. But alongside this, individuals can experience mood changes, increased anxiety and depression.
Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at Ohio State and study co-author, says that as well as finding treatments to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s, it is important to find ways to ease the emotional burdens of the disease.
“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 adds.
The investigators assessed 16 participants with Alzheimer’s, of which nine were women and seven were men. All participants usually take part in activities to manage their Alzheimer’s, such as crafts and exercise programs.
For this study, eight of the subjects continued with their usual activities at an adult daycare center, while the other eight took part in equine therapy at a farm once a week for 1 month.
Equine therapy ‘boosted mood and reduced negative behavior’
The researchers found that the individuals who took part in equine therapy scored an average of one point lower on the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale, compared with those who continued with their usual activities.
The team noticed that for patients with less severe Alzheimer’s, equine therapy led to an increase in cortisol levels. However, the researchers say this could be an increase in “good stress” as a result of being in a new environment.
They were surprised to find that some subjects who took part in equine therapy showed increased physical activity – some participants who rarely left their wheelchairs wanted to stand up and walk unassisted. This physical activity increased with every session.
In addition, the team found that some participants remembered the equine therapy session even after they went home, with a daughter of one participant commenting that her mother “would never remember what she did at the center during the day, but she always remembered what she did at the farm.”
Overall, the researchers say they saw clear signs that participants enjoyed the equine therapy sessions and became engaged in the experience.