Stress Reduction Through Horse Therapy
April 26, 2014

Horse Therapy Lowers Stress Level In Kids

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Previous research has shown that animals can have a soothing effect on humans and a new study published in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin reveals that when school kids work with horses they have significantly lower levels of stress hormones throughout their day.

“We were coming at this from a prevention perspective,” said study author Patricia Pendry, a developmental psychologist at Washington State University who studies the effects of stress prevention programs on human development. “We are especially interested in optimizing healthy stress hormone production in young adolescents, because we know from other research that healthy stress hormone patterns may protect against the development of physical and mental health problems.”

Pendry said her study is the first to look at how human-equine interaction can lead to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

“The beauty of studying stress hormones is that they can be sampled quite noninvasively and conveniently by sampling saliva in naturalistic settings as individuals go about their regular day,” Pendry said.

As part of a push to investigate human-animal interaction on child development by the National Institutes of Health, Pendry enrolled students in grades 5-8 in a 12-week equine-incorporated learning program in Pullman, Wash. The program included 130 normally-developing children, who were bused from school to the stables for 12 weeks over the course of the two-year study period.

The kids were arbitrarily designated to start the program or be put on a wait list. Founded in teaching normal horsemanship methods, the program offered 90 minutes per week to learn horse behavior, care, grooming, treatment, riding and communication with the animal.

Study volunteers supplied six saliva samples across a two-day period both before and after completion of the instructional program. Pendry examined the amounts and patterns of stress by measuring cortisol in the saliva.

“We found that children who had participated in the 12-week program had significantly lower stress hormone levels throughout the day and in the afternoon, compared to children in the waitlisted group,” she said. “We get excited about that because we know that higher base levels of cortisol – particularly in the afternoon – are considered a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology.”

Pendry said the experimental layout underlying the analysis gives far more support to the therapeutic claims of horsemanship experts, as well as parents and youngsters who have claimed a positive influence from these kinds of programs. The study adds to the results of similar studies involving companion animals that have found they improve social competence, self-esteem and behavior in children.

Pendry said she hopes the findings will lead to development of alternative after-school activities.

While the study centered on prevention, Pendry said she thinks it could offer a starting point to examine the influence of horsemanship on children with high stress levels, as well as kids with physical or mental health problems.

“Partly because of NIH’s effort to bring hard science to the field of human-animal interaction, program implementers now have scientific evidence to support what they are doing,” she said.