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Horses Improve the Physical & Emotional Health of Elderly Nursing Home Residents

Woman petting a horse

For nursing home residents, a little “horsing around” seems to be good for their well being. The use of horses to help people improve their social, mental, and physical health is called equine therapy, and it seems to be getting excellent results for seniors, especially those with dementia. An early study of the therapy observed that people with Alzheimer’s had some lasting benefits after equine (horse) therapy.

The health benefits of pet therapy have been known since at least the 1980s. In fact, one of the first programs for pet therapy, Pets on Wheels, began in Baltimore, and it is still active today, providing 175,000 pet therapy experiences every year. Pet therapy, also called animal assisted therapy, has been shown to improve the quality of life of seniors. Here are few examples:

  • Many seniors need encouragement to get more exercise, and interacting with a pet (e.g., walking a dog) can improve health and mobility.
  • Grooming a pet (e.g., brushing a cat’s fur) can improve fine motor skills in older hands.
  • Some seniors suffer from depression due to loneliness, isolation, or the loss of language ability, and the companionship of a pet, even for just 15 minutes, can improve their quality of life.
  • Pets trigger the production of the hormone serotonin in the human brain, which creates a feeling of well being and reduced anxiety or depression.
  • Caring for an animal can improve the self-esteem of seniors who lack a sense of purpose.

Dogs and cats have evolved alongside humans, so they are naturally gifted when it comes to interacting with humans and reading our emotions. So, it’s no surprise that they are the most commonly used animals in pet therapy. A 1,200-lb. horse might seem a little intimidating for therapy, but these majestic animals also have special traits that make them ideal therapy animals.

Why Horses?

Dogs, cats, and other small pets are great because they’re easy to bring to the nursing home, assisted-living facility, or hospital. You’re not going to be able to bring a horse to the nursing home, but part of the reason that equine therapy is so successful is the barn experience. Paula Hertel, MSW, a specialist in programs for older adults, told Today’s Geriatric Medicine, “Something special happens when people come to the barn. They start to become aware of all these new sounds, smells and, of course, the horses. The horses welcome them into their space. They begin to relax and enjoy being together.”

The experience of getting outside and interacting with these massive but friendly animals provides a new sensory experience, creates new and positive memories, expands their comfort zone, and builds confidence. Horses are also great at helping the elderly deal with difficult emotions.

Horses, like dogs and cats, have been domesticated by humans, so they’re also good at reading human emotions. Horses have an advantage that dogs and cats do not have: They are herd animals and prey animals. According to Psychology Today, “Horses can be an emotional mirror for humans. They respond to the feeling state we show. They are herd and prey animals, which means that they have a strong emotional sense and use this sense as a survival tool; they feed off of and respond to other horses in the herd… Because of these qualities, horses can be used to help people heal from a variety of psychological issues.” 

A Study Finds that Equine Therapy Has Lasting Benefits

Memory loss is what we primarily associate with dementia or Alzheimer’s, but it can also trigger personality changes, including depression or aggression. Equine therapy is known to improve the mental and psychological well being of people with dementia, but researchers at Ohio State University, wanted to see if it could be observed scientifically.  They conducted a study with an equine therapy center and an adult daycare center to see if they could quantify any changes in Alzheimer’s-related personality issues after equine therapy. They created a scoring system, from 0 to 4 (zero for no problem behavior; 4 for constant problem behavior). All the residents were given a score. Some of the participants were taken to the farm for equine therapy, while others stayed at the facility. Afterward they remeasured their scores, and they found that the equine therapy participants averaged one point lower than before, meaning that they generally had a better mood and fewer behavior problems.

Making Equine Therapy More Available

Equine therapy typically is an out-of-pocket expense for the residents or their families. Some nursing homes and equine therapy centers are applying for grants to help make this wonderful form of therapy available for people who can’t afford it.

If you have a loved one in a nursing home or other long-term facility and you suspect abuse or neglect, you owe it to your loved one to get professional intervention. For a free consultation in Maryland or Washington, D.C., call Brown & Barron at (410) 698-1717 or contact us online by clicking here.

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