A ground-breaking programme in the US wants to harness the therapeutic effects of horses and study how it can help those with dementia
Whether it’s grooming, walking or stroking them, horses can have a very calming effect on people, and this can extend to those with dementia.
A new programme run by the Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the Davis School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s Disease Centre (both at the University of California) will pair people with early stage dementia and mild cognitive impairment with horses.
It’s hoped the interaction will help to improve behaviour and communication skills.
The programme was conceived after a pilot study at Stanford University with 10 participants earlier this year found that people were more energised and exhibited more positive facial expressions after doing the horse ‘workshops’. The study facilitators also noticed that the people with dementia were better able to follow instructions and social cues that before the study started.
‘Horses have this innate ability to sense nonverbal communication and mirror it back,’ says Paula Hertel, a senior living consultant who conducted the pilot study.
‘Participants learn from that – they look at what the horses are doing and they modify their behaviour and learn how to work with a horse. With a 1,200 pound animal, you can’t force them to do something – it’s really a collaborative activity.’
Moreover, the horse therapy is designed to help not just the person with dementia, but those who care for them, too.
‘People get stuck in this role of feeling labeled and their sense of self worth and confidence is eroding,’ said Hertel. ‘The care partner now takes on this role of the protector and caregiver. The balance of the relationship really changes. The stress of it is real for everybody.’
Horse therapy is already used for children with autism, traumatised military veterans and former inmates, and it’s hoped that further study into this area for people with dementia will encourage its use as a therapy further.
And much like pet therapy, particularly using dogs, many care homes are cottoning on to how effective horses can be for engaging and calming residents with dementia. While it’s not always easy to have a horse clopping around a care home (although it has been done), it is worth looking into whether local stables are able to bring horses for a visit even if it’s just round the car park of the home. You could even organise a trip out to see the horses at a local stables.