Can horses tells the difference between mentally traumatized humans and those not experiencing any psychological trauma?
The issue has been examined in a recent pilot study, amid a background of mounting evidence that points to the benefits of horse therapy for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related problems.
University of Guelph Associate Professor Katrina Merkies examined the specific question, “Can horses distinguish between neurotypical and mentally traumatized humans?” in a study backed by the Horses and Humans Research Foundation.
She noted that while equine-assisted activities had been well-researched, few studies had analyzed these interactions from horse’s viewpoint.
Merkies, in a summary of her findings, said equine-assisted activities relied on the appropriate pairing of a horse with a human to extract applicable learning opportunities that enable the participant to benefit fully from working with the horse.
“Facilitators,” she says, “need not only to know the temperament of the horses at their disposal, but also to understand how certain human traits or actions affect the behavior of the horses.”
Merkies said some criticisms of research studies in this area targeted the unproven assumption that horses would respond differently to humans with psychological/emotional issues, for example, PTSD, than to humans not experiencing any psychological trauma. The implicit belief in the assumption was that the horse instinctively assessed the needs of the emotionally-challenged human and responded benevolently.
Merkies’ pilot study paired four humans with clinically diagnosed PTSD to four neurotypical control humans similar in age, height, weight and familiarity with horses.
The PTSD subjects interacted in a round pen for two minutes with each of 17 different therapy horses.
“Following an instructional session with a professional acting coach, the control humans then interacted with each of the therapy horses, moving their bodies in the same manner as their paired PTSD subject,” Merkies explained.
Both horses and humans wore a heart rate monitor, and all sessions were video-taped for later examination of horse behaviors.
Results showed that horses carried their head higher with the PTSD subjects − a behavior related with stress − but otherwise did not respond differently to PTSD subjects compared to the control individuals.
“However, the presence of any human caused horses to move slower, vocalize less, chew less and decrease heart rate – all signs of a more relaxed state.
“The length of time a horse had been used in a therapy setting only affected vocalizations, with less experienced horses vocalizing more,” she says.
“Interestingly, horses approached quicker, oriented their ears toward and stood closer to humans who were more experienced with horses, although horse heart rate was lower when with inexperienced humans.
“This could indicate that horses are more attentive toward experienced humans, perhaps in the expectation of work, whereas horses can be more relaxed when with inexperienced humans.”
The results, she says, are useful to inform practitioners of behavioral responses of horses used in equine-assisted activities, as well as to justify experimental protocols for future research in this area.
A report on the study can be read here.