Study to explore the effects of equine-assisted therapy on Parkinson’s disease

Image by Christel Sagniez

The effects of equine-assisted therapy on the lives of older adults with Parkinson’s disease will be explored in a study in Texas.

The research, led by Rhett Rigby at the Texas Woman’s University, will compare bradykinesia (slowness of movement) and functional outcomes before and after eight weeks of equine-assisted therapy.

The study team, from the university’s School of Health Promotion and Kinesiology, will also characterize the human-animal interaction arising from the therapy.

Rigby said that while research studies examining the physiological benefits of horseback riding have been conducted, there is a lack of published research into the physical adaptations to equine-assisted therapy in adults with Parkinson’s disease.

“We hope that the results of this study will further the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy as a novel treatment modality for this population, and lead to a more widespread acceptance by healthcare practitioners.”

For the study, funded by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 30 men diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, aged 40 to 80 years, will be recruited and randomly assigned into two groups.

Fifteen participants will complete eight weeks of equine-assisted therapy, and the other 15 will complete a similar protocol on a horseback riding simulator.

The horse-related therapy will comprise 17 sessions over eight weeks, under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. A similar protocol will be in place for the simulated riding session.

Preliminary data from two pilot studies suggest that an improvement in postural sway and balance is present after both equine-assisted therapy and simulated riding in older adults with balance deficits.

The study will seek to determine if these adaptions will lead to improvements with other hallmark features of Parkinson’s disease, including bradykinesia, posture, balance, and gait.

Researchers expect that individuals participating in the sessions with the horses will experience greater decreases in bradykinesia severity compared to those participating in simulated horseback riding, and that individuals with Parkinson’s disease may experience improvements in skeletal muscle strength at the core and pelvis as a result of this exercise.

The executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, Steven Feldman, said the study had the potential to positively impact an understudied population while fostering human-animal bonds and improving physical and occupational therapy practices.

Rigby added that with a greater understanding of the physical effects of equine-assisted therapy for these individuals and greater acceptance by healthcare practitioners, it is hoped there will be an increase in demand for equine-assisted therapy that will ultimately result in it becoming more affordable and accessible.

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