The small pilot study was a group effort between researchers at Ohio State University, an adult daycare center, and an equine therapy center.
The findings showed that people with Alzheimer’s were able to safely groom, feed, and walk horses with supervision and that the experience gave them a better state of mind and made them less likely to resist care or become aggravated later in the day.
Equine therapy is a treatment currently used for children and teens who have emotional and developmental disorders. The study shows that this type of therapy could work for adults as well.
Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at Ohio State, said that equine therapy could supplement more common forms of animal therapy involving dogs or cats and offer a novel way to lessen the symptoms of dementia without drugs.
“We wanted to test whether people with dementia could have positive interactions with horses, and we found that they can — absolutely,” Dabelko-Schoeny said. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidents of negative behavior.”
In addition to memory loss, explained Dabelko-Schoeny, individuals with Alzheimer’s often undergo changes in personality. They can become depressed, withdrawn, even aggressive. Current therapies are becoming more focused on how to ease the emotional burden for patients and their loved ones.
“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 said.
For the study, eight participants with Alzheimer’s visited the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, Ohio, once a week for a month (a total of four visits). A control group of eight other Alzheimer’s patients remained at the daycare center and pursued other activities.
The equine group groomed and bathed the horses, walked them, and fed them buckets of grass. The researchers noted that the patients thoroughly enjoyed their time with the horses: they smiled, laughed, and talked to the animals.
Even typically withdrawn patients became fully engaged. There was also a clear improvement in dementia-related behavior among the clients who visited the farm.
Family members of the patients reported that their loved ones remained engaged long after the experience. One commented to researchers 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.”
Another surprising finding was that the therapy boosted physical activity. The patients all dealt with physical limitations; but while interacting with the horses, they were inspired to push those boundaries.
Some clients who always wanted to stay in their wheelchair were asking for help to stand up; others who rarely wanted to walk, stood up and walked unassisted, though a caretaker was always there to help. The clients grew more physically active on each visit to the farm.
“I think another positive influence for these clients was the environment. 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,” said study coauthor Gwendolen Lorch, D.V.M., Ph.D., assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine at Ohio State.
“It is difficult to tell what factors made this successful, but we do know that it was most likely a combination of events.”
Source: Ohio State University