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This summer a generous donation made by Mr. Duncan Alexander, a long time supporter of programs at the College of Veterinary Medicine, allowed for a ground-breaking Alzheimer’s study to be performed. The study, “The Effect of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) with Horses on the Psychological and Behavioral Symptoms of Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias,” was a collaborative effort between the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Social Work. The research team was led by Dr. Gwendolen Lorch, assistant professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, and Dr. Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, associate professor at the College of Social Work. Graduate students involved in the study were College of Veterinary Medicine students Marie Jarden and Denise Johnson, and College of Social Work students Sarah DeAnna and Emily Darrough.
“There is significant anecdotal evidence suggesting that dementia patients benefit from interacting with horses,” said Duncan Alexander. “The only way to prove this is through research, and I was excited to be involved with such a ground-breaking study.”
The project involved bringing patients with early stages of Alzheimer’s and other related dementias from Heritage Day Health Centers in Columbus to the Field of Dreams Equine Education Center in Blacklick. The patients went to the farm once a week for four weeks. At each visit, the patients rotated through three stations: grooming and brushing; haltering, leading, and handling the horses; and a final station where the patients used finger-paint to paint the horses.
The stations were designed to increase sensory stimulation as evidence has suggested that dementia patients are more likely to remember how they felt during an event, rather than the event itself. Alzheimer’s patients, like horses, are excellent at reading body language. While people with Alzheimer’s may not know exactly what is happening around them, like horses they respond to the body language of people around them.
“When I visited the farm and saw how the patients interacted with the horses, it was amazing to see how happy and invigorated they were,” Duncan Alexander said. “These are people that struggle to remember and comprehend their day-to-day events, but they all remember the wonderful times they have spent with the horses.”
This study used both qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection. While the data from the study is still being analyzed, everyone involved noticed substantial differences in the patients that got to interact with the horses.
“I’m excited to see the results,” said Alexander. “No matter what, this study is bound to lead to other related studies, and this has been an amazing experience for everyone involved. My thanks to all involved from Heritage Day Health Center, Field of Dreams, and Ohio State, but in particular Dr. William Saville, whose extensive coordination efforts made this project possible."