Science: Equine therapy does not increase stress for horses

Dogs and cats are usually considered the most common therapy animals, offering emotional support to their owners and companions. But some therapy animals are much, much larger.

Thousands of horses belong to equine therapy programs around the world, treating both adults and kids with anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, eating disorders, grief and a number of other difficult conditions. These programs don’t replace conventional forms of treatment; rather, they supplement them. Sometimes, equine therapy can even be part of a physical therapy treatment plan.

Patients working with therapy horses may learn to ride them, or sometimes they just spend time with them. Advocates say equine therapy helps develop problem-solving skills and builds self-confidence.

What about the effect on horses?

So, is the practice good for the horses, too? Recently, a team from the University of Missouri-Columbia tried to find out. The study they published said that horses ridden in a weekly therapy program for veterans with PTSD did not have undue physiological stress responses after being ridden, nor did they display behavioral stress.

“While there is a growing body of literature demonstrating the beneficial outcomes from (equine therapy) programs for people with developmental, cognitive and psychosocial disabilities….it is imperative that we consider horse stress levels to ensure their health and welfare,” said the study’s leader, veterinary medicine professor Rebecca Johnson.

Over the course of the study, researchers looked at physiological stress levels and behavioral stress responses in equine therapy horses. They compared stress in horses that had been ridden by the veterans (who had no prior experience) to horses ridden by trained riders. Both veterans and experienced riders followed the same routine: an hour of riding at the same time of day, once a week, for six weeks.

On certain weeks, researchers took blood samples from the horses before class, after the riding tack was applied, and after the class. They measured the blood for stress indicators, including the steroid hormone cortisol. They also analyzed video footage of the classes for behavioral stress signals like restlessness and jumpiness.

The study did find some stress response differences between rider groups. Therapy participants’ horses demonstrated stress during the tacking stage. The researchers suggest this may be because veterans applied the tack differently from how the horses were used to. The horses also showed elevated physiological and behavioral stress while being ridden by the experienced riders, possibly because those riders expected a higher level of performance. But stress behaviors were not weighted towards therapy horses, or measured in high levels.

“Overall, horses involved with the (equine therapy) program exhibited low stress responses, indicating no harm from doing the work… which could give retired or unwanted horses new lease on life,” said Johnson.

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