More research needed into the effects of therapy work on horses – review

A scientific review has acknowledged the increasing popularity of horse-related therapies, but says additional work is needed to learn more about how horses cope with the work.

The Italian review team noted that there were many different ways in which horses were used in therapy work, using the umbrella term Equine Assisted Intervention (EAI) to cover its many forms.

“However, information on the welfare of animals involved in this kind of activity is often lacking,” Marta De Santis and her colleagues wrote in the journal Veterinary Sciences.

“Horses are highly susceptible to work stressors related to physical constraints and/or to the need to control emotions while interacting with humans.”

Considerations of the emotional state of horses involved in therapy work had many facets, they said.

The review team, from a range of Italian academic institutions, examined the different approaches used to evaluate the stress responses of horses and investigated their use in the context of horse therapy.

They noted that a few studies had investigated horses’ stress responses during therapy work, but recommended that further studies be undertaken with the final aim of deriving a reliable multidimensional method for assessing a horse’s reaction during therapeutic programs.

This, they said, would ultimately help professionals to better develop therapy programs by taking into consideration the animal’s perspective.

The authors noted the increase in scientific evidence pointing to the effectiveness of such therapies.

“Some studies have reported a variety of benefits of equine assisted interventions, in particular in the social, emotional, physical, and educational domains.

“Positive results have been found, for example, on children, adolescents, adults, and elderly, with intellectual disabilities or physical impairments.”

Some reviews have investigated psychological outcomes, the effect on physical function, and their effectiveness as complementary interventions with children and adolescents at risk.

Notwithstanding this, some reviews have emphasized a number of limits in research in the equine therapy field. There has been criticism of a lack of rigorous methodology, including small sample sizes, the lack of a control group, or no consistent follow-up data.

Few studies, they said, had tested the stress experienced by horses involved in these interventions.

“Horses involved in EAIs frequently work on a daily basis, and similarly to those employed for more common equestrian disciplines, can be submitted to work stressors related to physical constraints and/or ‘psychological’ conflicts, such as controversial orders from the riders, or the requirement to suppress emotions.

“In the context of EAIs, animals are also requested to relate with subjects with a variety of physical and social/emotional disabilities, although few studies have explored whether this requirement can represent an additional source of stress for the animal.”

The response of animals when interacting with subjects with social and emotional problems — like those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder —  have not been sufficiently studied, they said.

The review team traversed the range of methods used in various studies to evaluate stress in horses.

They said that identifying signs of discomfort in horses represented a first step toward a more objective means of evaluating the subjective experience of horses involved in EAIs and minimizing stress during these interventions.

“This may contribute to promoting healthy and safe relationships between humans and animals, and avoid responses that can pose a danger to both.

“In sum, in order to assess and improve the welfare of horses involved in EAIs, evidence of the relationship between behavioral, physiological responses, and environmental factors are needed.

“Future studies should use a multidimensional approach for monitoring horse welfare during both therapeutic and recreational sessions, taking into account animals’ living conditions, training style and equipment used, riding style, and the type of work performed.

“In addition, future studies should carefully consider the possibility that the absence of conflict behavior in horses, and their compliance with trainer/handler/rider’s requests, is not always indicative of good welfare, but may be due to an apathetic state (depression-like state related to learned helplessness).

“The final aim,” they said, “is to derive a reliable method for assessing a horse’s reaction during therapeutic programs, ultimately helping professionals to better develop interventions, taking into consideration the animal’s perspective.”

The review team comprised De Santis, Laura Contalbrigo, Marta Borgi, Francesca Cirulli, Fabio Luzi, Veronica Redaelli, Annalisa Stefani, Marica Toson, Rosangela Odore, Cristina Vercelli, Emanuela Valle and Luca Farina.

Equine Assisted Interventions (EAIs): Methodological Considerations for Stress Assessment in Horses
Marta De Santis, Orcid, Laura Contalbrigo, Marta Borgi, Francesca Cirulli, Fabio Luzi, Veronica Redaelli, Annalisa Stefani, Marica Toson, Rosangela Odore, Cristina Vercelli, Emanuela Valle and Luca Farina.
Veterinary Sciences 2017, 4(3), 44; doi:10.3390/vetsci4030044 

The review, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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