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Stanford University School of Medicine

Pilot study suggests therapy horses may aid people with dementia and their caregivers


Family members provide most of the day-to-day care for people with dementia. Yet few resources are available for individuals in this common, and often times stressful, caregiving arrangement.

The Connected Horse Project, a program founded to involve people with dementia and their caregivers in guided activities that bolster their communication skills, could change this.

As described previously on Scope, the project's guided workshops with therapy horses also help participants learn self-compassion and stress reduction techniques. Organizers conducted a pilot study at Stanford to test its effectiveness. Now that the study is complete, I followed up with co-founder Paula Hertel to get an update on the research.

The sample size of the Stanford pilot study was modest (26 participants), but the preliminary results are promising, she said.

The research team, led by Dolores Gallagher Thompson, PhD, and Nusha Askari, PhD, and Jacqueline Hartman at the Stanford Red Barn Leadership Program, found that supervised activities, such as observing herd behavior, grooming horses and leading horses with a lead and halter, helped participants recognize and use non-verbal forms of communication.

These preliminary results also revealed that workshop participants benefited from an increased perception of social support, less stress and better sleep. Participants also reported fewer of the undesirable behaviors associated with dementia, such as anxiety, agitation and paranoia.

The next step, Hertel told me, is a new study that began in November 2016 and is part of a collaboration with the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center.

An important aspect of the work is the unique relationship between people and horses, Hertel said:

We are grateful to the horses we work with for their generosity and gentle feedback as people practice collaborating and being in the moment with them. Until there is a cure, programs like ours help people affected by dementia stay engaged and provides opportunities for them to experience new activities.

Previously: Horse therapy could help people cope with early-onset dementiaHow horsemanship techniques can help doctors improve their artCan dogs help diabetic owners monitor glycemic levels? and Psychiatric trained dogs help in the battle of PTSD
Photo courtesy of Elaine Chan

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