The project is a part of the CSIO Barcelona social branch
“Being able to participate in this study has been an amazing gift to us,” stated Gemma Castellón, showing her happiness at the official presentation of the ‘Cabalgando la Vida’ (Riding Life) project that took place at the Federica Cerdá Foundation facility. Her daughter, Ona, is one of the girls participating in the horse therapy study launched by the Real Club de Polo de Barcelona Foundation. “Ona has always loved riding, and when she beat her illness, we thought that horse-assisted therapy could help her get her old life back. When the Vall d’Hebron Hospital called us to participate in the study, we couldn’t believe it. Sometimes Ona wakes up tired, in pain, not wanting to do anything… but she always has the strength and enthusiasm to come here. The effects of this therapy have been miraculous, and we will always be grateful to the Real Club de Polo de Barcelona Foundation for this great opportunity.”
Child cancer survivors may suffer from both medium- and long-term effects from the disease itself, as well as from the cancer therapy they’ve had to endure. As a result, it is important to monitor them, not only to foresee a possible relapse or the appearance of another tumour but also to analyse these effects. This research analyses the benefits of horse-assisted rehabilitation with the goal of improving quality of life for these children. The project, promoted and financed by the Real Club de Polo de Barcelona Foundation through the donations of RCPB members, collaborators, sponsors, fans, etc., is the social branch of the CSIO Barcelona. This joint effort, spearheaded by the international jumping competition, will benefit many children affected by this terrible disease while showcasing the powerful healing abilities of our horses. The clinical study is being carried out by the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital and the Gimbernat University Schools in cooperation with the Federica Cerdá Foundation and the Spanis Association Against Cancer (AECC).
Horse therapy, also known as hippotherapy, is a discipline that uses the relationship between people and horses to improve both physical (motor function, posture, balance, gait, etc.) and psychological parameters. This type of therapy has already proven to be beneficial in previous studies with people suffering from cerebral paralysis or autism spectrum disorders, as well as adults who have completed cancer therapy. Now, ‘Cabalgando la Vida’ (Riding Life) will study whether horse-assisted rehabilitation reduces the medium- and long-term impacts that cancer therapy has on children and adolescents who have suffered from cancer affecting the central nervous system.
The clinical trial being carried out at Vall d’Hebron so far includes 20 participants between the ages of 4 and 18 who were discharged from cancer therapy between 6 months and 1 year prior. Out of these participants, half are involved in horse-assisted therapy in addition to the treatment guidelines and follow-up specified for their disease, while the other half only participate in regular treatment and follow-up.
Rehabilitation consists of 24 individual sessions, once per week. With the help of a horse therapy rehabilitation specialist, the children do various activities with the horses to stimulate their memory, abilities, and motor skills and improve their mood. During the sessions, they get the horse from the stable, perform basic hygiene, brush it, saddle it, feed it, mount it, and participate in rehabilitation games and activities while on the horse. “During the study, we analyze physical variables such as balance and coordination, as well as psychological variables such as general health, anxiety, depression, mood, and sociability, to see if their quality of life improves,” explained Dr. Anna Llort, an assistant in Vall d’Hebron University Hospital’s Pediatric Oncology Department and researcher for the Translational Research in Cancer in Children and Teenagers research group at the Vall d’Hebron Research Institute (VHIR). “So far we have been finding that both the experience of riding a horse and interacting with it, as well as the movements while on the horse, result in improvements in these areas. At the same time, we are confident that the therapy also has benefits on an emotional level, improving patients’ self-esteem as well as their state of mind,” said Anna Saló, psychologist for Vall d’Hebron University Hospital’s Pediatric Oncology Department and the Translational Research in Cancer in Children and Teenagers research group.
“When riding, the horse transfers its three-dimensional movement to the rider, which leads to joint and muscular activity from the pelvis through the ischium to the first cervical vertebra, with respect to the physiology of the human torso. This results in both proprioceptive and exteroceptive functions to be ordered and executed at the same time. The children become aware of the situation and adapt to normal movement thanks to the cadence of the horse’s gait,” explained Teresa Xipell, physiotherapist and director of horse therapy at the Federica Cerdá Foundation. “In addition to that, the horse itself and the natural environment make these activities highly motivating,” she added.
One of the purposes of ‘Cabalgando la Vida’ (Riding Life) is to share the benefits of the symbiosis between horses and humans throughout history. “In a meeting with the Federica Cerdá Foundation, we decided to take on this project that intertwines with the long relationship that has existed between horses and medicine. It began with Hippocrates, whose name actually means ‘Horse Dominator’, and continued with a long tradition of illustrious medical practitioners who pondered the benefits that horseback riding had on the human body. Today, the benefits of this discipline are well-known around the world,” explained Emilio Zegrí, president of the Real Club de Polo de Barcelona Foundation, who admits that “we could not imagine a more beautiful project to raise awareness about what our friends, the horses, are able to teach us.”
The clinical trial began at the end of 2019 but had to be stopped at the beginning of the pandemic. “The families really wanted to resume therapy because they have seen a benefit in the development of their children’s physical state, as well as their self-confidence,” added Dr. Llort, thanking the families for their efforts, since the sessions require a large amount of availability and flexibility in order to attend the horseback riding at the location where the rehabilitation is carried out. The sessions have now been resumed, and the goal is to increase the sample size so that more children can benefit from the program and the impact of horse therapy can be analysed.
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