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Alzheimer’s Symptoms Eased by Caring for Horses

Pam Frost Gorder | MedicalXpress.com | May 5 2014

In the first study of its kind, researchers have determined that spending time with horses eases symptoms of Alzheimer's dementia.

A collaboration between The Ohio State University, an equine therapy center and an adult daycare center found that people with Alzheimer's were able to safely groom, feed and walk horses under supervision—and the experience buoyed their mood and made them less likely to resist care or become upset later in the day.


The small pilot study, which appears in the journal Anthrozoös, suggests that equine therapy—a treatment used today for children and teens who have emotional and developmental disorders—could work for adults, too.

Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, 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 provide a unique way to ease 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, people with Alzheimer's often experience personality changes, she explained. They can become depressed, withdrawn—even aggressive. As researchers look for a way to prevent or treat the disease, today's therapies are becoming more focused on how to ease the emotional burden for patients and their families.


“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.

At the adult daycare center, a National Church Residences Center for Senior Health in downtown Columbus, clients normally partake in crafts, exercise and other activities to manage their dementia. For this study, sixteen of the center's clients who had Alzheimer's—nine women and seven men—volunteered to break with their regular routine.

Once a week, eight of the clients would remain at the center and pursue other activities while the other eight took a bus trip to the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, Ohio. There, they visited with horses under the supervision of National Church Residences caretakers, as well as faculty and students from the College of Social Work and the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State.

The clients visited the farm once a week for a month, so that every participant had four visits total. They groomed and bathed the horses, walked them, and fed them buckets of grass.

The four horses were chosen for their gentle dispositions and calmness when facing new people and new situations. All participate in therapeutic riding programs for children and teens at Field of Dreams.

The researchers saw obvious signs that the clients enjoyed their time on the farm: they smiled, laughed and talked to the horses. Even those who normally acted withdrawn became fully engaged in the experience.

There was a clear improvement in dementia-related behavior among the clients who visited the farm. To track behavior, the researchers used a scoring system called the Modified Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale, in which staff at the center rated the frequency with which the participants fidgeted, resisted care, became upset or lost their temper on days they went to the farm or stayed at the center.

Keep reading to learn how horses helped these clients push the boundaries of their limitations

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