The study, conducted in Sweden, followed the recovery of 123 patients who had experienced a stroke between 10 months and five years earlier, according to an article in The Daily Mail. Individuals were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups: horse-riding therapy, rhythm-and-music therapy, or a control group of traditional stroke recovery care.
The riding group had twice-weekly lessons for 12 weeks. They were tested for changes in balance, walking gait, grip strength and cognition. Patients in the riding group had an average improvement of 10 percent, and 56 percent of the riders still felt they were improving six months after the end of the riding course.
For comparison, the control group’s average change was a 0.5 percent decline in performance in the tests during the same time period.
The rhythm-and-music therapy group, which participated in activities that involved patients beating their hands and feet to music, also saw their performance improve by about 5 percent—a significant increase over the traditional therapy group, but not as successful as the riding group.
Researchers believe part of the success of riding as stroke rehabilitation treatment is that sitting on a walking horse mimics the same movements as a human gait, helping patients recover normal motion and balance.
In an interview with CBS News, American Stroke Association Spokesperson Dr. Daniel Lackland suggested that some of the other benefits of horse-riding therapy, such as interacting with animals and other people, could also contribute to recovery.
The researchers concede that this is one small study, and further research would be required to bolster the conclusions. However, horseback riding and other equine-assisted therapies have been shown to help recovery from a wide variety of conditions, and stroke victims may be another group that can benefit from horses.
Leslie Potter is a writer and photographer based in Lexington, Kentucky. www.lesliepotterphoto.com