Equine therapy is commonly used to support elderly patients with a number of problems, whether it’s to help those with Alzheimer’s to remember key moments, or to help those with physical needs to gain better posture and flexibility.
Using the movement of horses to support physical and occupational therapy is known as hippo therapy, and it has been proven to help the elderly in dramatic ways. Working with horses can help support patients physically but also emotionally and it’s especially effective for those suffering social isolation.
We spoke to the team of Equisupermarket.co.uk and they gave us the 101 on how horseback riding can help our older folks, you can read up on their insights below.
Can horses help with physical therapy?
Elderly horse riders can really benefit from the physical skill needed to ride on a steady, slow horse. Even using a slow pace the patient needs to maintain balance and posture by using their core muscles, which can help with improved strength.
This type of physical therapy can really help older people who have been struggling with balance, poor posture control or any other kind of physical impairment. They simply follow the slow rhythm of the horse’s repetitive movements and will be experiencing a physical workout almost without knowing it.
A horse walking slowly mimics the way a person walks, so sitting astride a slowly moving animal can really improve an elderly person’s posture and core strength which will serve them well in life when they are moving around outside of the saddle. That strength and flexibility will stay with them.
The reason it works so well for older patients is because they have to use their muscles and co-ordination to stay balanced and to stay on the horse – it’s a very gentle and subtle way to help build up their muscle strength.
Alongside muscle and core strength, horse riding can improve coordination skills for older people as well because they are required to move several different parts of their body at the same time, in line with the horse’s movement. It can help improve overall physical awareness.
Are there any psychological benefits?
Another really good reason why equine therapy is beneficial to the elderly is the psychological impact which working with and riding horses can have on people. Horses are very sensitive to emotions and will react accordingly.
Coming to a riding session and bonding with an animal can help to reduce feelings of social isolation which are frequently experienced by elderly patients. Connecting and bonding with the horse can really help, as it provides the patient with a sense of companionship.
For this reason, horse riding and being involved in caring for a horse such as grooming it can also help support elderly people who are suffering from mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Another psychological benefit is the confidence boost it can give to an elderly person. Realising they are able to ride and handle a horse can be an amazing boost and can really develop an elderly person’s sense of self-esteem.
It helps them to realise they are more capable than they perhaps thought they were, which can in turn enable them to handle other life challenges better and to be more confident in life outside the stables as well.
Helping to groom and feed a horse rather than riding it, is also beneficial. Studies have shown that just spending time with a horse and stroking the animal can help elderly people to open up and talk about memories and their past – with help from an equine therapist.
If a patient suffers from fear issues working alongside a big animal and realising that it is okay and is a positive experience can also help people to overcome their fears in other areas of life by showing them that things which may appear big and scary aren’t always a threat.
While working with horses in therapy is not conventional, it has been shown to work, particularly for those patients in nursing homes who don’t have any family or regular visitors and feel isolated. Taking them out of their usual environment to interact with horses gives them a completely new and valuable experience.
Some places use more traditional pet therapy for example, getting people to stroke dogs and cats, but working with horses has far more benefits for all round health than this type of approach – with both the physical and psychological benefits.
Patients in wheelchairs can also benefit from spending time outside, brushing horses and interacting with them – it enables them to reminisce about childhood dreams of horse riding and brings back memories from their childhood days.
Can equine therapy support patients with Alzheimer’s?
Working with horses has been proven to have a particularly strong benefit to patients who suffer from conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. People with memory problems seem to react positively when spending time grooming and stroking a horse.
Allowing them to stay in the moment and interact closely with an animal helps to develop an amazing connection between the patient and the horse and has often led to the patient telling stories from their past as they relax with the horse.
Working with a horse helps to trigger memories of past pets from childhood and adult life which can then bring forward all sorts of stories. It can be an amazing experience for a patient who suffers with memory loss.
Equine therapy can bring both physical and psychological benefits to elderly patients having an amazing effect on their memories, and helping to keep them calm, in the moment and relaxed as they connect with the horse.
While mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia remove most of the control the patient has in their life, calmly stroking an animal can give them a great deal of pleasure in life and brings a lot of enjoyment.
Equine therapy should always be handled alongside an expert therapist but there can be no doubt it can be highly beneficial for elderly patients, both providing physical exercise and support, and giving immense benefits to their overall wellbeing, reducing stress and anxiety levels as well as improving social interaction.