What do horses have to do with Alzheimer’s?

Equine therapy has been around for a while now, helping people with various disabilities build confidence and gain mobility. Until now, however, very little research…
What do horses have to do with Alzheimer’s?

A new way to help people with Alzheimer’s disease is through equine therapy. (Shutterstock)

Equine therapy has been around for a while now, helping people with various disabilities build confidence and gain mobility. Until now, however, very little research has been done investigating the benefit such therapy might have for a person with Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of progressive mental deterioration that occurs as a person enters old age. The condition has become so prevalent, that statistics indicate 1 in 3 seniors will die with the condition, and more than 500,000 deaths can be attributed directly to Alzheimer’s disease.

SEE ALSO: Number of cases of Alzheimer’s disease to triple by 2050

While there is no current cure for the condition, progress is being made in ways to delay, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s. One of those new ways to help people with this degenerative brain condition is through equine therapy as a new study published in the journal Anthrozoos indicates.

Research co-author by Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor of social work at Ohio State, looked at how general care of horses might benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease experiencing memory loss, anxiety and depression–in the moment.

“Our focus is on the ‘now,’” said Dabelko-Schoeny to MNT. “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?”

To answer that question, the team of experts evaluated the study participants on how often they fidgeted, resisted care, lost their temper or became upset while asked to feed horses buckets of grass, as well as groom, bathe and walk the animals. The results were then compared to the same criteria for study participants enjoying time in other arts and crafts or exercise programs.

What they found was that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease participating with the horse care showed more signs of physical activity–and that physical activity increased with every horse therapy session. For example, patients usually unwilling to leave their wheelchairs were seen getting up unassisted. Those working around the horses also saw almost immediate mood improvement and a decrease in negative behaviors.

SEE ALSO: Is this normal aging or Alzheimer’s disease?

The only adverse finding was that those working in the horse therapy program demonstrated elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels, though researchers feel this was likely due to the stress of being in a new situation and not any apprehension related to horses.

Just what was it about caring for horses that caused the change in Alzheimer’s patients? Researchers aren’t sure.

“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,” study co-author Gwendolen Lorch, added in the interview. “It is difficult to tell what factors made this successful, but we do know that it was most likely a combination of events.”

This is not the first time horses and other animals have been found to be beneficial in therapy sessions. Animals have found a place to help people with cancer, seizure disorders, autism, Down Syndrome, visual impairment, cerebral palsy, depression, and anxiety.