In addition to memory loss, people with Alzheimer’s often experience personality changes. They can become depressed, withdrawn and even aggressive. In recent years, researchers have been keen to find new ways to help ease these symptoms. Some researchers have determined that spending time with horses can help ease symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia and that interactions with ponies often helps stimulate a positive social response that minimises stress. Equine therapy (therapy involving horses) can also provide comfort, joy, and a sense of excitement.
History of research on horses easing Alzheimer’s symptoms
“horse therapy” can be traced back to ancient Greek times but was most recently widely adopted in the 1950s when it became popular to pair equine therapy with physiotherapy in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Nowadays therapies are becoming more focused on how to ease the emotional burden for patients, their families and carers. In 2014 a collaboration between a horse therapy centre, The Ohio State University, and an adult day care centre, found that people with Alzheimer’s were able to safely feed, walk and groom horses under supervision. According to the research, time with horses kept the dementia patients in a good mood and made them less likely to become upset or resist care later in the day.
The study suggests that equine therapy, a treatment used today for children who have emotional and developmental disorders, could work for adults and specifically those with dementia.
Most recently, in February 2020, the BBC released a video showing the experience of “pony therapy” at a care home in North Yorkshire. KL Pony Therapy, founded in 2011 has built a business bringing miniature ponies into Care Homes, Hospitals and other organisations.
The ponies triggered memories in the older residents. One resident described how she “missed having ponies” and it was “lovely when they do come around”.
How it Works
Interacting with and caring for animals has many proven health benefits. It provides people with comfort and a strong sense of wellbeing.
Whilst a range of animals are used in therapy, including cats, dogs, guinea pigs and even fish, equine therapy has been found to be effective particularly in helping individuals to process and change negative behaviours.
Equine-assisted therapy is an experiential and highly specialised form of therapy that usually involves working in collaboration with a therapist, a horse handler and of course, a horse.
During sessions, you don’t actually ride the horse. Instead, you carry out tasks such as grooming, feeding, and leading the horse. Sessions typically take place in small groups, where you may have specific tasks or ‘obstacles’ to overcome. After the session, you will be given a chance to discuss your emotions and experiences with your therapist.
Ultimately, the aim of equine therapy is to help the participant to discover more about themselves. As well as develop new ways of thinking and change negative behaviours. The horses can also ease symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as negative behaviours and stress.
However, equine therapy doesn’t just result in psychological benefits – it has physical benefits as well. This type of therapy has also been found to reduce people’s heart rate and blood pressure. It can also help to calm the physical symptoms of conditions.
How to get involved
There are many places that offer equine therapy, in which you can book online. Here are a few:
- Equine Pathways UK offers free sessions in Leeds.
- London Equine Assisted Therapy offers visit booking online.
- HopeThruHorses for those in Carmarthenshire, Wales.
There are other options out there that may be located closer to you. If a therapy session is not what you are looking for then there is another choice.
A trip to a stable can be a nice day out with your loved one suffering from dementia, you may be able to visit a local stable. If you contact them directly, they may be more than happy to have you come in to interact with their horses. Centres like Kingsmead Horses offer customers opportunities to interact with their horses in many ways including, but not restricted to, riding the horses.
More Activities for Dementia Patients
You may be concerned about taking your loved one out to interact with animals and this is understandable, in many cases, it may not be beneficial for your loved one. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more activities to do with them! Head over to our list of activities for dementia patients for some ideas.