Horses Have a Miraculous Effect on People with Alzheimer’s

The breathtaking majesty of equine power and grace has given horses a storied place in the lives and legends of human beings. Now, a new study from Ohio State University has found that horses can also have a near-magical effect on people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Instead of engaging in their usual crafts and exercise classes at an adult day center, eight adults with Alzheimer’s volunteered to feed, walk, paint and groom horses at a local farm once a week for a month. The horses were specially-selected for their calm, easygoing dispositions and participation in a prior therapeutic riding program for children with physical and developmental disabilities.

The effect on the older adults was almost instantaneous, according to Holly Dabelko-Schoney, lead author and associate professor of social work at Ohio State. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidences of negative behavior,” she says in a university news release.

The benefits of equine interaction

Increased isolation, pain and stress often accompany advancing age; a fact which has led to a rise in the use of animal-based therapy in elder care settings. The science-backed benefits of interacting with animals—reduced anxiousness, enhanced feelings of calm—endure, regardless of an individual’s age.

Animal therapy for the elderly has traditionally been the purview of smaller animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, geese, etc. (One study even found that watching fish swim around a fish tank and eat could convince a reluctant elder with Alzheimer’s to eat.) These animals are easy to transport to a variety of locations and typically don’t pose a serious threat to an aging adult’s health or safety.

Due in part to the success of therapeutic riding programs for children with Autism and other conditions marked by difficulty with mental and motor skill development, Alzheimer’s care specialists are now beginning to branch out, using bigger animals such as horses (both miniature and regular-sized) and llamas to enrich the lives of aging adults with dementia.

As the Ohio State study demonstrates, these interventions could potentially have major positive implications for seniors and their caregivers.

After the older adults interacted with the horses, mouth swabs were used to determine the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the senior’s saliva and a modified version of the Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale—a test commonly used to monitor behavioral issues in people living in long-term care settings—was used to measure their emotional response. Across the board, those seniors who interacted with the horses scored better on the behavior scale than those who participated in the normal activities at the adult day care center.

Surprisingly, individuals with Alzheimer’s who worked with the equines had higher levels of cortisol in their saliva—indicating that they were more stressed. Due to the fact that these patients were smiling and engaging positively with the animals, study authors attribute this finding to increased levels of “good” stress that can arise when a person is exposed to a new situation where they feel in control and accomplished.

Despite various mobility limitations—which, for some, included being in a wheelchair—helping the horses motivated the men and women with Alzheimer’s to become more physically active. Even the most inhibited patients opened up in a positive way with the animals.

Even if the effects didn’t last long, researchers were heartened by the possibility of equine therapy leading to true enhancement of the lives of people with Alzheimer’s. As Dabelko-Schoney says, “Our focus is on the ‘now.’ What can we do to make them feel better and enjoy themselves right now? Even if they don’t remember it later, how can we help in this moment?”


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4 Tips for Visiting the Zoo with a Senior
Dogs Change the Lives of People with Alzheimer’s
Why a Visiting Pet Program Would Be Perfect for Seniors
Coconut Oil for Alzheimer’s: A Miracle Cure?

By Anne-Marie Botek, Editor


Maryanne Phillips

wine and horses in perth hills are organising a two day horse ride to Northam return in October to raise funds to support Alzheimer's WA.
We will have about 40 horses and riders riding over two days and would love to hear from any businesses who would be interested in supporting us by donating items or vouchers for our Fundraising Auction during the ride.
Our email address is:
thank you.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Elisa F.
Elisa F2 years ago

Awesome-thanks for sharing :)

Karen S.
Karen S3 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Please visit draft horse rescue site:

Mark H.
Mark H3 years ago


Helga Ganguly
Helga Ganguly3 years ago

Thank you.Horses are above NOBLE.

Alexandra G.
Alexandra G3 years ago

great article, thank you

Oren k
Oren k3 years ago

My wife is a therapeutic riding instructor for disabled children.
These animals are amazing.
What they do for us is amazing.
We shouldn't forget this!

Amy D.
Amy D3 years ago


Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

Everyone needs a horse in the living room!