Stressed? New studies suggest to spend more time with your horse

Source: Text by Katie Navarra

Horse owners know that spending time with horses is good for the human soul. One whiff of sweet horse scent dissolves stress for a bad day at the office. A positive ride or quiet grooming time melts life’s tensions.

“I’ve had clients show up so frazzled from a day at work that I’ll just get them to sit on a horse or walk and jog around until they’ve relaxed,” said Jeremy Mimitz of Skyz the Limit Performance Horses in South Windsor, Connecticut.

Sue Jacobson, People-Pet Partnership and PATH Coordinator at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine agrees.

“To those of us that work in the field of equine assisted therapy and others who have had horses as adolescents and/or worked with kids and horses, the positive effects are obvious,” she said. “However, anecdotally observing this is not the same as a well-designed research project, like the one conducted with Dr. Pendry, to show this to be true.”

A recent study designed by a research team from Washington State University (WSU) has garnered results that are the beginning for determining the causal effects of equine facilitated learning on human development and well-being. Previous research has mainly focused on therapeutic riding and the physical benefits horses offer to riders with disabilities, but this one investigated the effects on children who didn’t have a disability or mental health disorder.

Patricia Pendry, PhD, Annelise N. Smith and Stephanie M. Roeter orchestrated an 11-week equine facilitated learning program, which closely monitored the activity of the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis of fifth through eighth graders by measuring the cortisol levels in the participant’s saliva.

“Although equine facilitated programs have gained in popularity over the past decade, virtually nothing is known about the causal effects of equine facilitated interventions on human development and well-being,” Dr. Pendry said.

The findings from this study offer evidence that horses create positive physiological impacts on people and can be used to help developing teenagers develop social competence in a world where bullying and apathy are a part of everyday life. The findings also provide significant implications that interacting with horses may protect youth from developing depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.

“We were extremely grateful that the results were powerful, clear and robust,” Dr. Pendry said. “It’s a really exciting moment that the results of this study were even better than expected.”

The study was supported by a grant through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and H/Mars-Waltham and validates what most horse folks have long known to be true—that the horse is more than a show partner, they ease the stress of life.

What is equine-facilitated/assisted learning?

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH) defines EAL as an experiential learning approach that promotes the development of life skills for educational, professional and personal goals through participation in horse activities.

The term “life skills” encompasses a broad range of capabilities such as decision-making and problem-solving, creative and critical thinking, communication and interpersonal skills, self-awareness and empathy and the ability to cope with emotions and stress.

Those who are closely involved with the horse industry have long known this to be true.

“I’ve had youth clients whose parents have gotten divorced and the horses really keep the kids grounded and better able to cope with their emotions,” Mimitz said.

Similarly, he has also spoken with public school teachers about the social skills horses enforce in a youth’s life and has found that these folks too have noticed a difference.

“Teachers say they can pick riders out of a larger group of students because these kids are not experimenting with other things, their homework is always done and they excel in class,” he said.

Ashley Fiedler, a PATH Certified Instructor and professional trainer with a master’s in sports psychology, has witnessed the social competence horses can introduce into a child’s life. One client, a foster child, was terrified to let the horse move away from her. The young girl had hard time sending it away because in her mind it equated to people leaving her life.

“I had her work on sending the horse away and taking a deep breath, which signaled to the horse to come back,” Fiedler said. “Her anxiety level plummeted over the course of several weeks.”

Stress, what stress?

Previous research studies, by other scientists have hypothesized that Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) activity plays a role in the development of stress-related disorders during adolescence. In basic terminology, a person’s HPA is a person’s stress response system. The HPA axis is a complex system that intertwines the central nervous system and endocrine system and under stress signals the body to produce cortisol.

The Mayo Clinic explains that cortisol is the primary stress hormone. Cortisol increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

On the Mayo Clinic’s website, the “Chronic stress puts your health at risk” article goes on to explain that Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

“In healthy adolescents, basal cortisol levels are typically highest in the morning soon after waking, drop rapidly in the first few hours after waking and then continue to drop more slowly, reaching a low point around midnight,” Dr. Pendry explained.

Although associations between lower average daily/afternoon levels of cortisol and development of mental health disorders are still not clearly understood, several researchers in the field have suggested that lower basal cortisol levels in a relatively normal sample of young people suggests that lower levels may have a protective influence against the development of mental health issues.

During Dr. Pendry’s study, participants provided saliva samples three times a day at prescribed times prior to any interaction with the horses and again after participating in the equine-facilitated learning. The results showed a moderate lowering effect on average daily cortisol levels.

“As such, our study suggests that equine-facilitated learning may be an effective approach to support positive development in adolescents,” Dr. Pendry said.

Horses are the perfect partners for demonstrating the effects of heightened cortisol or stress levels.

“Horses react to a person who is stressed or anxious. It is a great way to teach children how feelings of stress can be picked up,” Dr. Pendry said.

“I excepted that we would see an increase in positive behaviors and decrease in negative behaviors in this study, but I was surprised by the strong effect on stress as measured through the saliva,” Jacobson said.

Study design

To maintain the integrity of the results, the research team designed a study that included a large sample group that was randomly selected for participation. The 11-week trial period combined mounted and unmounted experiential learning, interaction with horses and counseling-based processing skills to increase the teens’ awareness and control of their emotions, cognitions, behaviors and physiologic stimulation.

A total of 131 children from 10 different school districts in the rural community near Washington State University were recruited. From those recruited, 113 were selected to participate and were randomly assigned to two groups: one that interacted with horses and the others who were waitlisted and served as the control group.

The children put in the lesson group were divided into teams which included one horse, two kids, and four experienced facilitators. The program was repeated four times each week so that a total of 32 students were served in that timeframe. The lessons began with teaching basic horse behavior and herd dynamics and progressed through driving a horse away through body language, riding and basic horsemanship skills. Each horse-related activity correlated with key objectives important in daily life. Those objectives ranged from respect for one’s self, others in the group and the horse to leadership, trust, respect for boundaries, relaxation and more.

“We had a weekly routine which was quite consistent so they knew what to expect each week,” Jacobson said. “The “meat” of the lesson changed but everything else was basically the same.”

She provided an example of the group’s weekly routine.

Arrival: Participants will stow their backpacks in the vans, and, put on their nametags.

  • Safety agreement
  • Review rules if necessary (after the first couple of weeks we were able to skip this)
  • Half the group gets the horses and bring them to the arena with the assistance of the horse specialists; other half brings equipment to the arena and sets up as necessary
  • Groom horse with partner
  • Instructor will introduce the weekly lesson/activity and demo as necessary
  • Participants practice with their partner and horse specialist
  • Wrap up/processing
  • Put horses away; clear the arena(horse specialists)
  • Closing

Although the weekly routine stayed consistent, the activity within the lesson was modified to reach specific objectives. In one exercise, the kids were instructed to not talk to each other except when necessary to coordinate their efforts and to focus on breathing in time with their brush strokes and using long rhythmic strokes. They were also asked to observe the horses’ reactions and their level of calmness to see if it matched that of the people.

“They were told the purpose of this activity was to calm the horses before riding, but in reality, we wanted to see if it helped calm the kids,” Jacobson said.

In another exercise, the kids were asked to bring up their energy to try to help the horse walk faster and to bring down their energy to get a slower walk. They also tried to synchronize their footfalls with the horses.

“We would sometimes incorporate a game of red light/green light which helped them alter their energy levels without over thinking it,” she added.

The results from Dr. Pendry’s study are powerful and important. Dr. Pendry says that the findings give credibility to the claim of therapeutic horsemanship professionals, participants and parents who have reported significant positive effects of equine facilitated learning.

Dr. Pendry cautions that while the study produced strong results, it’s important to remember that this is the first of what should be further researching on the topic. She points to a few limitations of the study.

“For example, we don’t know if it’s the grooming of horses, riding or engaging in natural horsemanship that affected a child’s HAP activity,” Dr. Pendry said.

Translation to real-life

Using horses is a powerful way to help individuals develop life skills and develop emotional skills by watching a horse’s reactions. “When a person is afraid and looking for a boogey man around the next corner, the horse will be too,” Fiedler said. “By using the horse’s non-judgmental, immediate feedback is very different than sitting in an office talking to a counselor. The horse elicits pretty powerful experiences.”

While as horse trainers and exhibitors the lesson activities and results are what you’ve already known to be true, the results from this study have powerful implications for helping current clients better cope with stress and the potential to serve other children who may not show.

“This study suggests that equine facilitated learning programs may serve as viable alternatives to after school programs focusing on athletic or academic achievement, providing after school opportunities to children with different interests and needs,” Dr. Pendry said.


You must be logged in to post a comment Login