Mechanical horse helped postural coordination in brain-damaged patients

An example of exercises during training sessions. Images: Baillet et al.
An example of exercises during training sessions. Images: Baillet et al.

A mechanical horse used in a pilot study in France improved the postural coordination of brain-damaged patients, according to researchers.

For their study, Normandy University researcher Héloïse Baillet and her colleagues used 18 volunteer brain-damaged patients who had been affected by either stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Ten of the participants were randomly selected to undertake a program of conventional therapy associated with horse-riding exercise on the mechanical horse for 30 minutes, twice a week, for 12 weeks. The remaining eight undertook conventional therapy without the use of the mechanical horse.

Postural coordination was evaluated before and after the program.

The results showed improvements in the postural coordination of the patients who used the mechanical horse when compared with those who undertook only conventional therapy.

After 24 sessions, the coordination of the horse group patients differed from that of the control group, showing their ability to adapt to constraints and develop specific modes of postural coordination to optimize their posture.

The researchers, writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, noted that, most often, postural coordination analysis is performed on healthy individuals in a standing position.

“Nevertheless, erect posture is often difficult to achieve for disabled individuals, particularly brain-damaged patients, who may thus be constrained to the sitting position.”

These patients frequently have balance deficits and uneven motor control, resulting in decreased stability.

Sitting posture has been studied even less, despite it being a common and familiar position, notably for infants.

Horse riding has been employed for postural rehabilitation, taking advantage of the rhythmic equine movements. Several studies, the authors noted, have indicated the positive effects on muscle tone, posture, balance, and pain. It has also improved emotional and psychological dimensions.

The mechanical horse was created in the 1990s and has been used in rehabilitation centers to improve motor abilities, muscle tone, postural coordination, and energy expenditure in disabled patients without the unpredictability of an animal.

The researchers set out to evaluate the impact of a new training protocol on the mechanical horse for brain-damaged patients.

They hypothesized that 24 training sessions on the horse would bring about improvements, helping them to resist postural disorganization when the oscillation rate on the mechanical horse was increased – an adjustment that mimicked faster gaits.

The study team reported that a change in trunk/horse coordination was observed for all patients after 12 weeks of training, with or without the mechanical horse. But by this time the postural coordination of the horse group patients was better than that of the control group.

However, the authors stressed that it was a preliminary study with several limitations and without clinical relevance.

They said further, better-designed studies were needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of this tool in the rehabilitation of patients with neurological disorders.

The full study team comprised Baillet, David Leroy, Régis Thouvarecq, Nicolas Benguigui and Eric Vérin, all with the University of Normandy; Claire Delpouve, with the CRMPR Les Herbiers Rehabilitation Center in Bois-Guillaume; and John Komar, with the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Baillet H, Leroy D, Vérin E, Delpouve C, Benguigui N, Komar J and Thouvarecq R (2019) Effect of Mechanical Horse Practice as New Postural Training in Patients With Neurological Disorders: A Pilot Study. Front. Psychol. 10:1035. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01035

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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