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Ohio State study: Working with horses could help ease symptoms of Alzheimer’s

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A recent OSU study determined that working with horses can help ease symptoms of dementia. Credit: Courtesy of Johnny Runciman

A recent OSU study determined that working with horses can help ease symptoms of dementia.
Credit: Courtesy of Johnny Runciman

Horses might lend a helping hand to people with symptoms of dementia, a recent Ohio State study has found.

The study, which was a collaboration between OSU, an adult daycare and an equine therapy center, has determined that interacting with the four-legged creatures can ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia.

“We wanted to see if previous (dementia) studies done with dogs could translate with horses,” said Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, one of the study’s researchers and an associate professor of social work.

Alzheimer’s disease results in memory loss and changes in personality, causing those who have the disease to become depressed, withdrawn and sometimes even aggressive, Dabelko-Schoeny said.

The results showed that people with Alzheimer’s were able to groom, feed and walk horses with supervision. That experience gave them a better understanding of their surroundings and a “reduction in problematic behavior,” Dabelko-Schoeny said. The patients were found to be smiling, laughing and talking with the horses.

The study was funded by Duncan Alexander, a private donor from Geneva, Ill., who Dabelko-Schoeny said donated $50,000 to the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine with the interest of studying engagement between horses and people with dementia.

For the study, 16 Alzhemier’s clients from the National Church Residences Center for Senior Health in Columbus volunteered to visit the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick, Ohio.

The clients were split into two groups of eight.

“Eight clients would go to the barn while the other eight would have a usual day. Then we would flip and compare the groups going to the barn to those that were not,” Dabelko-Schoeny said. Each group got to go to the barn four times.

While they were at the barn, the participants engaged in three different activities for 15 minutes each. The first activity was to brush the horses, the second was to paint the horses in a Native American style with non-toxic paint, and the third was to walk the horses in the arena.

Patients’ family members reported a change in their loved ones after spending time at the barn. One family member commented that her mother “couldn’t remember what she ate that day, but could remember going to the barn,” Dabelko-Schoeny said.

Jennifer Hansen, co-owner of Field of Dreams, said after the trial run that she is continuing the program.

“We loved it so much and were so amazed by the reaction (of the patients) we decided to keep it going,” she said. As a result, Field of Dreams now has a partnership with another senior care facility.

They patients will continue to do similar activities as in the study, including brushing, washing, painting and riding the horses, Hansen said.

One student with years of experience around horses,  said she didn’t find the results of the study surprising.

Alison Scott, a third-year in agricultural communication, is a member of the OSU Hunt Seat Equestrian Team and has been riding horses since she was 6 years old.

“They respond to you,” she said. “They know when you are in a good or bad mood and they do a lot to make you feel better.”

2 comments

  1. I wonder why we have to keep spending money to prove that animals are good therapy for anyone? Just having people participate and have a purpose is important and I’d be shocked if the type of animal matters. I’d love to see dollars like this spent to enrich peoples lives rather than helping someone with their thesis.

  2. Hi OSU,

    I asked Laura Bischoff about Gee’s significant other in California *ahem* Monterey California *ahem* Miis *ahem* and all the lights in the restaurant went out!

    We miised u!

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