Horse & Country are a leading equestrian sports and lifestyle network that provides over 40 million households with exclusive coverage of live sports events, documentaries, and the most sought-after names in the sport today. In this article, Katie Allen-Clarke — Head of Marketing at Horse & Country — explains how these beautiful animals can have a therapeutic impact on people with Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia.
Horses and humans have long had a connection to one another, and there’s archaeological evidence to suggest that horses have been our domesticated companions for over six thousand years (Britannica). However, more recently we have learned that the partnership between humans and horses can go beyond work and leisure and into something truly special: offering therapeutic benefits for those living with dementia.
As there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and many other types of dementia, treatment generally focuses on easing people's symptoms and improving their wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. This can range from art or music therapy to engaging in gentle exercise or outdoor activities where possible, like contributing to a community garden.
While animal therapy has become more popular in recent years due to the calming, comforting impact it can have on people, studies generally tend to focus on animal therapy with cats and dogs. However, some studies have now shown that equine therapy can offer equally significant mental and physical benefits to those with Alzheimer's. In this article, I'll be taking a closer look at just some of the ways horses can offer comfort and companionship to those who may need it.
Mood, mental health, and quality of life
People with dementia can often experience personality changes, as well as mental health conditions like depression, as a result of their memory loss, decreased social skills, and limited mobility (Cochrane). These changes can manifest themselves in anxiety, resistance to care, or even aggression. Some studies have found that after time spent grooming, feeding, and walking horses on a supervised trip, care home residents were not only happier during or immediately after their visit, but were generally calmer and less likely to become distressed throughout the day (Science Daily).
Not only this, but the same study also suggested that incorporating a new activity that breaks with routine may have a positive effect on the person's mental state by triggering a small increase in cortisol levels, due to the ‘good stress’ of being in a new environment (Science Daily).
Outdoor activity boosts physical health
The health benefits of time spent outdoors can't be underestimated. Not only does it help to regulate our body clocks and therefore improve sleep, but getting enough vitamin D from the sun also contributes towards building strong bones and preventing autoimmune diseases. Research has shown that even as little as 10 to 15 minutes of outdoor activity a day could significantly benefit the physical health of people with dementia, while taking part in planned walks three times a week could help to slow the decline of their cognitive and communicative abilities (The Dementia Centre).
However, despite belonging to a demographic that would benefit a great deal from increased time outdoors, elderly people with health conditions are often the least likely to get the chance to do so. As engaging with horses requires going outside, this adds an extra benefit to the use of equine therapy in dementia treatment. Travelling from their usual residence to stables or a farm can also provide patients with a change of environment, which would often entail travelling from a more urban area to the countryside and its green spaces (Science Daily).
It increases mental and physical engagement
Exercise can play a much larger role in our cognitive function than we may realise. For instance, in a study of older people with an average age of 82 years, those in the bottom 10% in terms of their daily physical activity were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those in the top 10% (Alzheimer's Society).
However, research also suggests that engaging with horses can help to encourage higher levels of physical mobility in people already living with dementia. One study even found that the desire to groom and feed the horses motivated some residents to push their physical limitations further than they normally would in the care home, such as asking for help to leave their wheelchair and engage fully with the activity at hand (Science Daily).
If your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or any other type of dementia, they may just benefit from engaging with a slightly more unconventional form of treatment, like equine therapy. Their gentle, calming temperaments make horses the perfect animals to interact with someone who has dementia, and visiting a farm or stable has the added benefits of encouraging physical activity and time spent outdoors.