A growing body of evidence points to the value of equine-assisted therapy for people with challenges, but how does it affect the wellbeing of horses?
Researchers at the Research Institute in Semiochemistry and Applied Ethology in France have examined the question in a study reported this week in the journal Animals.
Tiago Mendonça and his colleagues noted that equine-assisted therapies (EATs) are often applied to patients with different types of conditions, either mental or physical.
Such therapies have created interest among scientists about the well-being of horses during this work.
The study team set out to investigate whether such therapy work created negative or positive emotions in horses.
They also explored whether the therapy expectations of patients had any influence on horses’ behavioral and physiological responses. One group of patients in the study had physical and psychological expectations, while another group of patients had only psychological expectations.
The researchers observed 58 patient–horse pairs, involving a total of 51 patients diagnosed with a range of medical conditions. The study involved nine horses, who had been involved in therapy work for as little as six months and up to nine years.
Behaviors and data on heart-rate variability were monitored during a resting phase, a preparation phase in which the patients brushed and saddled the horse, and a working phase.
In the working phase, the patients either undertook in-hand training with the horses or rode them, with the final decision made by the therapist.
The researchers then compared the horses’ behavioral and heart-rate responses between the different therapy periods and groups of patients.
Their results suggested that the therapy programs used in the study were neither a negative nor a positive event for the horses.
Therapy with patients who had both physical and psychological expectations was more challenging for horses than those with patients who had only psychological expectations, but observed variables were still within normal ranges.
While the results obtained showed that EAT may induce some behavioral and physiological changes in horses, these remained within normal parameters and could not be linked to any stress-related response, they said.
“Further research on EAT should focus on providing horses with positive stimulation and reinforcement to understand whether a positive association with EAT can be created,” they concluded.
The study team comprised Mendonça, Cécile Bienboire-Frosini, Fanny Menuge, Julien Leclercq, Céline Lafont-Lecuelle, Sana Arroub and Patrick Pageat.
The Impact of Equine-Assisted Therapy on Equine Behavioral and Physiological Responses
Tiago Mendonça, Cécile Bienboire-Frosini, Fanny Menuge, Julien Leclercq, Céline Lafont-Lecuelle, Sana Arroub and Patrick Pageat.
Animals 2019, 9(7), 409; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9070409