Horses working in therapeutic riding programs do not experience any undue additional stress, an American study has found.
In the United States, therapeutic horseback riding offers equine-assisted therapy to many groups, including children and adults who have anxiety disorders.
Veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often are prescribed this type of therapy to help them cope with anxiety, but little is known about how these programs affect stress levels in horses.
Now, a University of Missouri study has revealed that horses ridden by veterans with PTSD did not have undue physiological stress responses, nor did they exhibit behavioral stress while participating in a veterans’ therapy program.
This shows that therapeutic horseback riding may provide a viable repurposing for retired or unwanted horses.
“Estimates have shown that approximately 6300 horses globally work in therapeutic horseback riding programs at more than 800 centers,” said Rebecca Johnson, who is a professor in the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and also a professor of gerontological nursing in the Sinclair School of Nursing.
“While there is a growing body of literature demonstrating the beneficial outcomes from therapeutic horseback riding programs for people with developmental, cognitive and psychosocial disabilities, such as veterans with PTSD; it is imperative that we consider horse stress levels to ensure their health and welfare.
“Our study was designed to assess the differences in both physiological stress levels and behavioral stress responses while being ridden by veterans in these programs or by experienced riders.”
Johnson and her colleagues, whose findings have been published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, recruited two groups for the study. One comprised veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD, while the other comprised healthy, experienced riders.
Each individual horse was ridden in accordance with an approved program for approximately 60 minutes weekly at the same time of day for six weeks.
Veterans learned basic horseback riding skills, including how to mount and dismount, as well as how to apply tack to the horse.
Experienced riders were asked to go through the same actions as the veterans.
To measure physiological stressors on the horses, blood samples were collected 30 minutes before classes started, after the tack was put on the horse, and after the riding class at the first, third and sixth weeks.
Levels of the stress hormone cortisol were measured as well as glucose concentrations and other measurements.
Behavioral stress indicators were assessed by viewing videotapes of the horses obtained for two-minute periods during the first, third and sixth weeks.
Using a stress scale, two researchers scored the videos involving different horses to determine restlessness, jumpiness and startle-reflexes, as well as how accepting and calm the horses were at other times.
“Findings from our physiological and behavioral data indicated that the horses were not unduly stressed by the therapeutic horseback riding work. However, we found differences in the horses’ stress levels between rider groups,” Johnson said.
“Equine cortisol levels were elevated after riding tack was applied by inexperienced riders, in this case the veterans. However, we think that might be because these riders were applying the tack and mounting the horses a little differently than the experienced riders.
“The horses also showed elevated physiological and behavioral responses with experienced riders, which could indicate that these riders expect a higher level of performance from the horses.”
Overall, it was found that horses involved in the therapeutic riding program exhibited low stress responses, indicating no harm from doing the work.
Johnson said the findings suggested such work could give retired or unwanted horses a new lease on life.
The interaction between horses and riders has been demonstrated in studies to increase riders’ confidence, self-esteem, sensory sensitivity and social motivation while decreasing stress.
Therapeutic riding programs could enhance their orientation times and curricula to include tacking classes and increasing introductory sessions between horses and riders to decrease stress to the horses, Johnson said.
Future studies should include larger groups of participants as well as other measures of physiological stress, Johnson said.
The study team comprised Rebecca Johnson, Philip Johnson, Dorothea Megarani, Sarita Patel, Hayley Yaglom, Steven Osterlind, Karen Grindler, Catherine Vogelweid, Taryn Parker, Chyan Pascua, and Sandra Crowder.
Their paper is titled “Horses working in therapeutic riding programs: Cortisol, adrenocorticotropic hormone, glucose, and behavior stress indicators.”
Funding for the research was was provided by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institutes of Food and Agriculture, Animal Health.