Young people with cerebral palsy who undertook horse-based therapy had improvements in memory and attention, according to researchers.
The study in the Czech Republic was based on an assumption that the reduced muscle movement induced by cerebral palsy also inhibited some mental functions.
The researchers from Palacký University and the Czech Therapeutic Riding Association used two groups of patients in the study. The short-term riding-based hippotherapy group comprised 11 females and three males with an average age of 15.4. The oldest had not yet reached 21.
The long-term riding-based hippotherapy group comprised seven females and two males, and had an average age of 10.8, with the oldest being not quite 14.
The short-term group had daily 30-minute hippotherapy sessions during a week-long summer therapy camp; while the long-term group had 30-minute sessions weekly for 5-6 weeks.
Eva Krejčí, Miroslav Janura and Zdeněk Svoboda said the attention of the patients was assessed using a “numeric square test”, while memory skills were assessed using a “verbal learning test” involving memorizing words.
Both tests were undertaken before the patients started the program, and once they had finished all the sessions prescribed for each group.
Krejčí and her colleagues, writing in the journal Acta Gymnica, said they found attention improvement in both the long-term and short-term groups.
Short-term memory improvement was found in the long-term group, demonstrated by a higher number of memorized words – more than half of the patients memorized on average 10.5 more words after hippotherapy.
“While the short-term hippotherapy group did not show significant improvement of attention or short-term memory, the average number of memorized words after a diversion of attention and a 30-minute delay increased by 4.1, showing an improvement of long-term memory.
“Our results suggest that hippotherapy as a part of comprehensive therapy in patients with cerebral palsy leads to improvement of memory and attention skill,” they wrote.
Before starting the hippotherapy treatment, there had been no statistically significant difference found in the long-term and short-term groups for any of the measured parameters, they said.
Discussing their findings, the researchers said hippotherapy can have more than a physical effect – it can have a positive influence on both the social and psychological levels of patients with neuro-motor disorders.
“Although there is a substantial amount of research that supports the physical benefits of therapeutic riding, only small evidence exists in relation to its psychological benefits,” they noted.
They cited a 2011 review focusing on children with special needs, which concluded that through the combined stimulation of the muscular, skeletal, limbic, vestibular and sensory systems provided by hippotherapy, verifiable positive effects can be seen on the psychological and social level and on learning capabilities.
“Testament to the effectiveness of hippotherapy is the ever-growing number of hipporehabilitation centers,” Krejčí and her colleagues said. “Hippotherapy is used in the treatment of patients suffering from depression and psychotic, anxiety and personality disorders, but has a great effect on children and seniors as well, indirectly influencing the rehabilitation of cognitive functions.
“With regard to the results, and in accordance with other referenced studies, it is possible to consider hippotherapy as a treatment showing a promise of having complex positive bio-psycho-social effects on patients with cerebral palsy.”
The benefit of hippotherapy for improvement of attention and memory in children
with cerebral palsy: A pilot study
Eva Krejčí, Miroslav Janura and Zdeněk Svoboda.
Acta Gymnica, vol. 45, no. 1, 2015, 27–32
The full study can read here.
The research was published under a Creative Commons License.