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Horse riding has been shown to be very beneficial for stroke survivors

Photo: Horse riding helping stroke recovery,
The multi-sensory and stimulating nature of horse riding and rhythm-and-music therapies has been shown to be very beneficial for stroke survivors.

Scientists are challenging long-held beliefs about stroke recovery and have used horse riding to prove that a survivor can achieve both physical and mental improvements long after the initial medical emergency.

A Swedish study, led by Australian-based Professor Michael Nilsson at the Hunter Medical Research Institute, found horse riding and rhythm-and-music therapies improved a patients perception of recovery as well as their gait, balance, grip strength and cognition five years after their stroke.

Prof Nilsson says "frustratingly" there is a general view that stroke patients can't achieve significant improvements after 12 months.
What this study does, he says, is add to a growing body of evidence that the brain is like "plastic" and has the capacity to change itself over long periods of time, even in stroke survivors.

"That's why I'm so excited because we have proven now over and over that the brain has the capacity to change itself, develop new skills and find ways after damage that's not utilised in the current system," Prof Nilsson told AAP.

Researchers studied 123 Swedish men and women aged 50-75 who had suffered strokes between 10 months and 5 years earlier.

Trial participants were randomly assigned to rhythm-and-music therapy, horse-riding therapy or ordinary care, with the therapies given twice a week for 12 weeks.

Of those who experienced an increased perception of recovery, 56 per cent were in the horse-riding group, 38 per cent in the rhythm and music group, and 17 per cent in the control group.

Prof Nilsson says he was surprised by the sustained effects after only 12 weeks of these non-pharmaceutical interventions.

"Relatively speaking it's a moderate type of intervention so if you had increased the intensity or maybe extended it they could have potentially gained even more improvement."

It's thought the multi-sensory nature of the activities stimulates the brain which then translates into physical recovery.

"The combination of social, physical, cognitive challenges and stimulation adds together in a form of synergy to stimulate the brain," said Prof Nilsson.

The horse's back creates a sensory experience that closely resembles normal human gait and is beneficial for stroke survivors, he says.

In rhythm-and-music therapy, patients perform cognitively demanding hand and feet movements to visual and audio cues.

The researchers found that this activity, particularly, helped survivors with balance, grip-strength and working memory.

While further studies are needed, Prof Nilsson says the findings - published in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke - should offer some hope to the thousands of Australians who have survived a stroke.

In Australia, there are up to 60,000 new cases of stroke every year and there are somewhere between 350,000-500,000 survivors.

"It's not too late, you can achieve improvement both mentally and physically late after stroke and that's very important to send that message through," Prof Nilsson said.


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