Equine therapy helps people with Parkinson’s disease, study shows

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Images show the Vocalization exercises (A), a care and cleaning activity (B), a horse-assisted walking activity (C), and exercises in breathing (D) performed by individuals with Parkinson’s disease during the equine therapy program. Photos: Berardi et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10030561
Images show the Vocalization exercises (A), a care and cleaning activity (B), a horse-assisted walking activity (C), and exercises in breathing (D) performed by individuals with Parkinson’s disease during the equine therapy program. Photos: Berardi et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10030561

Horse-related therapy led to improvements in the occupational performance, mood, quality of life, gait, and balance of people with Parkinson’s disease, researchers report.

Anna Berardi and her fellow researchers in Italy, writing in the journal Healthcare, described their work to evaluate the use of equine therapy with 17 people with Parkinson’s.

They decided to explore equine therapy because horses offer physical and psychological therapy, both of which allow for physical, tactile, and emotional stimulation.

The participants, all recruited in Rome, were in the second or third stage of the disease, based on the Hoehn and Yahr scale, a recognised tool for assessing Parkinson’s.

The equine therapy program included 10 twice-weekly 45-minute sessions.

The therapy centered on building a relationship of trust and mutual understanding between the participants and the horse.

Activities included a caring and cleaning activity, a horse-assisted walking activity, a feeding activity, vocalisation exercises that included providing commands to the horse, a relaxation module, and other activities, based on individual preferences.

The outcome of the therapy was measured using several recognised tests, administered at the beginning and the end of treatment – the Rivermead ADL scale, Parkinson’s Disease Questionnaire-39, Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale, the unified Parkinson’s disease rating scale, and the Tinetti balance assessment.

A stabilometric platform was also used to objectively investigate the function of postural control before and after the therapy.

The authors said the results of the various tests indicated that equine therapy delivered improvements in occupational performance, mood, quality of life, gait, and balance. However, the stabilometric platform did not show significant changes before and after therapy.

Discussing their findings, the researchers noted that studies have shown equine therapy to benefit children with autism, infants with infantile cerebral paralysis, and people with multiple sclerosis.

They said their study adds important results to the existing literature on equine therapy, showing improvements in daily living activities, quality of life and balance in people with Parkinson’s.

They proposed further research involving more individuals, and said it would be advisable to investigate long-term benefits by repeating the evaluations every three months.

“In future studies, more objective evidence such as brain imaging or neuroprotective factor release in horse-riding practice should be included.” Correlations with medication should also be considered, they said.

“Finally, in future studies, an extra control, such as a horse-riding simulator group is needed in order to distinguish the therapeutic effects from the emotional exchange between human-animal interaction or the pure low-limb activity training.”

The study team comprised Berardi, Giorgia Di Napoli, Monica Ernesto, Giovanni Fabbrini, Antonella Conte, Gina Ferrazzano, Fabio Viselli and Giovanni Galeoto, variously affiliated with the University of Rome, Hospital San Govanni Battist in Rome, and the IRCCS Neuromed Mediterranean Neurological Institute, in Pozzilli.

Berardi, A.; Di Napoli, G.; Ernesto, M.; Fabbrini, G.; Conte, A.; Ferrazzano, G.; Viselli, F.; Galeoto, G. The Effectiveness of Equine Therapy Intervention on Activities of Daily Living, Quality of Life, Mood, Balance and Gait in Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease. Healthcare 2022, 10, 561. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10030561

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

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