Pet therapy is nothing new. As early as 18th-century dogs were used for therapeutic purposes when it was discovered that they boosted the morale of elderly patients with dementia.
In 1918, physiotherapist Olive Sands allowed Oxford Hospital in Great Britain to use her horses in an experiment involving animal therapy with war veterans. The results were considered successful. During the 1952 Olympic games, Liz Hartel, a paralyzed dressage rider, won a Silver Medal and inspired the world to take notice of therapeutic riding and to establish therapeutic riding programs.
Few had thought that something as imposing as a full grown horse would work for fragile seniors; for this reason dogs remain the dominate emotional support animals. However, it is well known that riding a horse improves balance and muscle tone at any age to say nothing about the self confidence it provides as one learns to handle these powerful animals. This form of physical therapy, known as hippotherapy, has been around since the 1960s.
Likely, as a consequence of using horses for physical, therapists began to notice a unique bond that horse and human were able to forge that produced some truly remarkable results. David Barnard, the administrator of Deerings Nursing Home in Odessa Texas has shared his stable of horses with the residents since 1998. "Horses and old folks go together," Barnard said. "A lot of them grew up with horses and remember riding them to school. We try to keep things busy and interesting around here. Just because you're in a nursing home doesn't mean you've got to quit living."
Barnard relates one story of the success horses have had on helping to heal the disabled. Following a severe stroke that left a patient virtually speechless Bernard enrolled her in his riding program. "She literally could not say more than two or three words, and that was a struggle," he said. "When she was riding the horse, I said, `Well, Anna, how do you like the horse ride?' And she surprised me by answering in two complete sentences, saying she liked it just fine and that it was the first time she had ever been on a horse. Then she got off the horse, and she couldn't talk again."
It is now fairly commonplace to add animals to a senior's life. It is well known that animals reduce depression, isolation, agitation, boredom and loneliness while simultaneously allowing the venerable senior to regain their self-confidence and self reliance. It's not likely we should ask more from our four-legged friends.
References: (November 2017) Barbara Bolin's "Re-imaging Aging with Equine Therapies" and "Elderly Patients Report Positive Results with Hippotherapy"