Therapeutic work affects the way horses view humans, research suggests

Animals working in riding school lessons performed more interactive behaviours than those working in equine-assisted interventions, researchers found.
Photo by Vivian Arcidiacono

The use of horses in equine-assisted interventions appears to influence their perception of humans beyond work, researchers have found.

Noémie Lerch and her fellow researchers, writing in the journal Animals, noted that little is known about the impact of equine-assisted interventions on horses’ perceptions of humans.

Different factors can influence human-horse relationships, such as animal characteristics, daily interactions with their caregivers, and each horse’s working and living conditions.

For their study, the researchers enrolled 91 ponies and 81 horses living at 12 riding centres – four in Italy, one in Ireland and seven in France.

The animals comprised 93 mares and 79 geldings and ranged in age from 4 to 29. Seventeen worked exclusively in equine-assisted interventions, 95 in “classical” riding school lessons, and 60 were employed in both activities.

Animal-assisted interventions are defined as goal-oriented and structured interventions that intentionally include or incorporate animals in health, education and human services. In the study horses undertaking this work, it mostly involved grooming, groundwork, lunging, and riding.

Each horse underwent a standardised human-horse relationship test in order to determine if equine-assisted interventions had an impact on the animals’ reactions to humans. The possible influence of age, sex and type of horse, as well as housing and feeding conditions, were also considered.

In each test, the female experimenter, who was unknown to the horse, entered its stall and stood motionless with her back to the stall door for five minutes.

The numbers of behaviours of each animal directed toward the person was observed and analysed. Among the 172 animals, the number of behaviours ranged from 0 to 51.

During the tests, 81% of the subjects displayed at least one positive behaviour toward the experimenter and 27% at least one negative behaviour. Interestingly, 12% of the subjects tested did not express any behaviour towards the experimenter.

Overall, the animals displayed a higher proportion of positive behaviours than negative behaviours.

The results revealed that the number (more than the type) of experimenter-directed behaviours varied significantly between individual animals, and that the activity undertaken by each equine was the most important factor of influence.

The animals working in riding school lessons performed more interactive behaviours than those working in equine-assisted interventions, or having mixed activity.

The number of interactive behaviours did not differ significantly between those working exclusively in equine-assisted interventions and those doing that work together with riding school lessons.

Other factors such as daily hay quantity, the horses’ age, and sex also influenced the horse’s motivation to interact, although no interaction was found between factors.

Indeed, the second most important factor was the quantity of hay: Those receiving more than 3kg of hay a day produced more interactive behaviours than the horses having less hay.

The results suggest that equine-assisted interventions affect horses’ perceptions of humans outside work, they said. Further studies are needed to understand the processes involved.

The researchers, discussing their findings, said the results showed that even though subjects performed overall more positive than negative behaviours towards the experimenter, clear differences appeared according to whether they were engaged in riding school work or equine-assisted intervention.

“The riding school equids performed more positive behaviours but, most of all, performed, in total, more human-directed behaviours during a test than equids involved in equine-assisted intervention, even if this was only part of their working time. In other words, equine-assisted intervention subjects appeared less interested in humans, i.e., less interactive.”

The authors said it was not possible at this stage to know why the animals used in equine-assisted interventions were less interactive with the experimenter in the test. It is not known whether they are more depressed due to their activity, whether they may have been trained for not reacting in any human-related situation, or if they had been chosen for this work because of their overall low reactivity.

However, they noted that studies aimed at testing the temperament of horses undertaking equine-assisted interventions have not led to any conclusive difference with other working horses.

“Further studies are needed that will include different types of tests, welfare assessments, and observations during equine-assisted intervention sessions.

“In any case, since it is well known that positive training can lead to improved human-horse relationships, it could be interesting to associate equine-assisted interventions with positive reinforcement, as recommended by the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organisations, in order to have more positively interactive and attentive horses and, at the same time, improve their welfare.”

The study team comprised Noémie Lerch, Céline Rochais, Clémence Lesimple, Estelle Guilbaud, Marine Grandgeorge and Martine Hausberger, with the Department of Animal and Human Ethology at the University of Rennes in Normandy, France; Marta Borgi and Francesca Cirulli, with the Center for Behavioral Sciences and Mental Health, with the Higher Institute of Health in Italy; and Laura Contalbrigo, with the Italian National Reference Centre for Animal Assisted Interventions, part of the Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of the Venezie in Italy.

Lerch, N.; Cirulli, F.; Rochais, C.; Lesimple, C.; Guilbaud, E.; Contalbrigo, L.; Borgi, M.; Grandgeorge, M.; Hausberger, M. Interest in Humans: Comparisons between Riding School Lesson Equids and Assisted-Intervention Equids. Animals 2021, 11, 2533.

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

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