A study in California aims to assess whether equine therapy can help people with early-stage dementia and mild cognitive impairment.
Researchers want to discover whether interacting with horses can alleviate problems including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and other challenges that can affect the quality of life of people with either of those conditions.
The research is a collaborative effort between the Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Center for Equine Health, both part of the University of California, Davis, and the non-profit group Connected Horse.
The study also is examining how the patients’ caregivers, who also interact with the horses, are affected.
The horse program was created by Connected Horse co-founders Nancy Schier Anzelmo, of Alzheimer’s Care Associates in Rocklin, who also serves on the faculty of the Department of Gerontology at Sacramento State University, and Paula Hertel, of Senior Living Consult. Their pilot study with Stanford University researchers found that participants showed improvements on several of the measures after three sessions with the horses.
UC Davis professor of neurology Sarah Tomaszewski Farias, who is the latest study’s principal investigator, said the Alzheimer’s Disease Center would rigorously evaluate potential benefits of the program.
The study involved seven couples who took part in a workshop at the Center for Equine Health at the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine over three five-hour sessions.
Specially trained facilitators led the participants in several activities in which each person interacted with the horses, grooming them, cleaning their hooves, observing them in a herd, and leading them in an arena.
The information gathered has yet to be analyzed, but program facilitators reported that participants seemed to benefit. One participant, for example, reported that the sessions made his partner smile and laugh, which she had not done in a long while.
Hertel said it was hoped to ultimately develop training for those who want to offer workshops to people affected by dementia, especially in areas where other community-based support services were scarce.
There are also plans to collaborate with others to offer evidence-based programs nationwide so that equine-guided work can become a more widely accepted support tool.