Equine therapy: What effect is there on horses?

A youngster working with a horse at the Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ontario.
A youngster working with a horse at the Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ontario.

Scientific research into the effects of equine-assisted activities (EAA) on humans has received a boost with a $10,000 innovation grant awarded to the Canada’s University of Guelph from the Horses and Humans Research Foundation.

It is the first such grant from the foundation, and is for the Guelph project “Can Horses Distinguish Between Neurotypical and Mentally Traumatized Humans?” to be led by principal investigator Katrina Merkies PhD.

There is a growing body of research into the effects of equine-assisted activities (EAA) on humans, but very little scientific study into how this affects the horse. To date, only three published articles are available on the subject.

“Humans working in the world of social work, psychology and psychiatry experience a high degree of stress. It is reasonable to assume that animals placed in similar environments would also experience stress,” Merkies said.

The hypothesis is that horses will distinguish between clinically “normal” humans and those experiencing psychological trauma (ie. PTSD) and respond differently even though exposed to the same external human behaviors (ie. the horse would respond to the emotional energy rather than purely the physical behaviors).

The study will expose 20 horses to four neurotypical humans [control] and four humans diagnosed with PTSD [treatment].

Both horses and humans will be outfitted with a heart rate monitor and horse salivary samples will be collected 30 minutes before testing and 30 minutes after each test to calculate cortisol concentrations as a measure of stress.

A video camera will record all tests. A comparison of horse heart rate, cortisol concentration and behavior data will determine differences between treatment groups.

“Combined with increased public attention to the welfare of animals used for human purposes, clearly there is a need for research in this area,” Merkies said.

Katrina Merkies
Katrina Merkies

“However, for useful research to proceed, some basic questions need to be answered to be able to conduct future trials that can withstand peer-review and provide unbiased empirical data on which to fashion EAA.

Merkies and team believe the results will significantly contribute to the direction and validation of future research on the impact of horses-human interactions, and that understanding the horse’s role in the processes involved in equine-assisted therapy is essential for furthering research into EAA not only from the human perspective, but from the lens of horse welfare to minimize stressful experiences for the horse and ensure participant safety.

Merkies is an associate professor at the University of Guelph, and the faculty advisor for the Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management degree program in Equine Management. She also teaches courses in equine management, event management, trends and issues and equine reproduction. She manages a small research program involving equine behaviour, welfare, management and reproduction.

Collaborating on the study is Therapeutic Riding Instructor Nikki Duffield, Program Director and Head Instructor at the Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ontario.

The study is expected to be completed by September, 2016.



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3 thoughts on “Equine therapy: What effect is there on horses?

  • December 23, 2016 at 12:19 am

    I am curious as to whether this study has been completed and when it may be published?

  • September 27, 2017 at 7:46 am

    is this study complete and published?

  • November 13, 2020 at 2:57 am

    I would love to know the results of this study…


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