Horse sense: Equine therapy helps dementia patients

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Dementia News(NaturalHealth365) In the movie “28 Days,” in which the act of gently persuading a horse to lift its hoof functions as a recovery milestone for inpatients of a drug and alcohol rehab, actress Sandra Bullock attempts the task over and over again. When she succeeds, her smile lights up the screen.

The movie may be pure Hollywood, but the scene is based on the very real use of horses to help foster self-confidence and trust in recovering addicts. Equine therapy and horsemanship is also used for children and teens with developmental and emotional disorders.

The growing problem of dementia

Now, a new study shows that equine therapy can also make a dramatic difference in the lives of people with dementia, which currently affects over 5 million Americans. With a rapidly aging population, these numbers are expected to rise; in fact, the Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention reports that someone is diagnosed with the condition every 67 seconds.

As much as 70 percent of dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease, with one out three senior citizens going on to die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease not only causes memory problems and confusion, but personality changes as well, with patients sometimes becoming depressed or aggressive.

The science behind ‘horse therapy’ for dementia patients

The study, the first of its kind, was published in the latest issue of “Anthrozoos, a Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions Between People and Animals,” and performed in collaboration with Ohio State University, an equine therapy center in Blacklick, Ohio, and a Columbus adult daycare center.

Under close and careful supervision, people with Alzheimer’s and dementia were able to feed, groom and walk horses, leading to an elevated mood that apparently lasted all day. Patients who had visited and cared for the horses were less likely to become agitated or resist care hours after the visit.

In the month-long study, sixteen volunteers with dementia were divided into two equal groups, one of which stayed at the center for a weekly session of arts and crafts, exercise or other planned activities; the other group traveled weekly by bus to the equine center. Caretakers, faculty and students from the daycare center and from the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine were on hand to supervise and assist, and the horses in the study – all regular mounts in the therapeutic riding programs for children and teens with disabilities – had been selected for their exceptional gentleness and calmness.

The surprising results of equine therapy

Participants – even those who were normally very withdrawn — became fully engaged in the experience, talking and even laughing. Even more tellingly, clients became more physically active, with some asking for help in leaving their wheelchairs, then walking unassisted. Researchers noted that improvements became more pronounced with each visit to the equine center.

How did equine therapy improve mood and behavior?

When the clients returned to the daycare center, their behavior was tracked with the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale, which rates frequency of resistance to care, restlessness and agitated or angry outbreaks. On a scale of one to four, the equine study participants scored a full point lower than those who had been involved in the planned activities at the daycare center.

Relatives noted the improvement as well, commenting that equine study participants remembered their positive experience at the equine center, and were eager to communicate about it.

Dementia symptoms eased by the love and comfort of therapy dogs

Although this is the first time the use of horses for easing dementia has been studied, the use of therapy dogs has shown measurable results.

In a study published in 2003 in American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementia, researchers tested the effects of therapeutic recreation animal-assisted therapy at a nursing home.

Professional handlers brought trained therapy dogs to a nursing home daily for three weeks, and results were measured with two different diagnostic tools: the Positive and Negative Affect Scale and the Satisfaction with Life scale. Study participants were those who were diagnosed with dementia and had had at least three documented behaviors of agitated behaviors such as screaming, biting and hitting in the last two months; all were former pet owners with a past interest in animals, with no reported allergies or fear of dogs.

Being around therapy dogs reduced negative behaviors

Not only did agitated behaviors decrease, but patients became more alert and responsive, even remembering and conversing excitedly about the dogs, even after the animals had left the premises. Researchers called the findings “promising” and noted that the animal-assisted therapy not only decreased agitated behaviors but increased the social interactions of persons with dementia.

The team noted that these patients may have had particularly good results because of their past love for dogs, and stressed the importance of matching the proper therapy to the patient’s personality and preferences. They also called for more study to determine how often, and for how long, animal-assisted therapy should be performed for best results.

Although scientists have only recently begun to measure – and appreciate – the positive effects of close bonds with other living creatures, animal lovers have intuitively known them all along. Whether it is the presence of companion dogs helping autistic children bridge the gap in communication between themselves and their peers, or the company of patient horses as a way to alleviate Alzheimer’s symptoms, the use of animals promises to play an important role in therapies of the future.

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