Horses used in an equine-assisted learning program were more sensitive towards adolescents assessed as being more fearful and emotionally fragile, researchers report.
Not all individuals who take part in horse therapy programs are comfortable in the presence of the large animals. Some can be highly anxious.
Aitor Arrazola and Katrina Merkies, writing in the journal Animals, point out that equine-assisted activities aimed at improving human well-being and health rely on good human–horse interactions for therapeutic effect.
The relationships that develop between horses and participants are crucial to that.
However, some at-risk participants with mental and emotional difficulties can show poor social skills and functioning relationships, potentially leading to unsuccessful human–horse interactions.
Arrazola and Merkies, who are with the University of Guelph in Canada, set out to learn more about how the attachment style of at-risk adolescents affected the behaviour and physiology of the horses they used in an equine-assisted learning program.
The term attachment style refers to the way in which humans interact with others and how they feel about their relationships. The nature of each person’s attachment style can affect their perception of their social world, influence their social skills, emotional health, and mental well-being.
Those with an insecure attachment style show more anxiety and avoidance in relationships.
A total of 33 at-risk adolescents, aged 12 to 19, took part in the 10-week equine therapy program, involving weekly sessions.
They had all been assessed as at-risk for mental health and behavioural difficulties, and were recruited from three different residential mental health agencies.
Beforehand, their attachment style was assessed using a relationship questionnaire developed for this purpose. Seven were classified as secure, 11 as preoccupied, one as “dismissing”, and 12 as fearful.
Nine therapy horses were used in the program, all geldings aged between 9 and 30. All but one had at least a year of experience as a therapy horse.
Each horse’s heart rate and behaviours (either aimed at bonding or avoidance) in response to the adolescents were recorded during grooming and riding.
Over time, horses with the fearful adolescents showed consistently more bonding behaviours compared to those with the preoccupied adolescents during grooming.
When being ridden, the horses with the fearful adolescents in the saddle showed a more constant heart rate and level of avoidance behaviours, compared to those ridden by the secure adolescents, whose mounts showed a significantly irregular pattern of avoidance behaviours.
The frequency of avoidance behaviours in horses ridden by the fearful adolescents decreased over time. In horses ridden by the more secure adolescents, the frequency of avoidance behaviours peaked at week 4 and tended to be higher than at week 7.
“These results indicate that therapy horses were sensitive to behavioural and/or emotional differences associated with the human attachment style of adolescents participating in an equine-facilitated learning program,” the pair reported.
The results suggest that a more predictable and less stressful physiological and behavioural response of therapy horses occurs toward participants with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
Discussing their findings, the authors noted that previous results indicated that the physiological and behavioural response of horses can be affected by human traits.
Merkies and her colleagues had previously shown that horses had a lower heart rate in the presence of humans who ranked themselves as fearful around horses.
“Indeed, horses showed a lower stress response (slower gait and lower head position) when exposed to physically and psychologically stressed humans compared to calm humans.”
Human–horse interaction includes a whole array of social interactions, they said. The behavioural feedback of therapy horses is a direct reaction to human body language, behaviour, and/or physical attributes during therapy or learning programs.
“Understanding the welfare of therapy horses is equally important during therapy sessions to safeguard positive horse welfare and the participant’s safety.”
Identifying the factors and management strategies that reduce fear responses in horses, including human attitude and behavior, can improve the human–animal relationship and address safety concerns around horses, they said.
In conclusion, they said the results indicate that therapy horses did not exhibit physiological or behavioural distress during the program.
The human attachment style of at-risk adolescents with emotional and mental difficulties can influence the horse response during interactions. The underlying mechanisms behind the more predictable response of a horse toward highly anxious and highly avoidant adolescents are yet to be determined, they added.
The overall participation rate was 75.8%. Twenty-five of the 33 adolescents completed at least 7 of the 10 sessions.
Arrazola, A.; Merkies, K. Effect of Human Attachment Style on Horse Behaviour and Physiology during Equine-Assisted Activities–A Pilot Study. Animals 2020, 10, 1156.