Horses used in therapy work require that “X factor” to be successful, but fresh research raises interesting questions around precisely what qualities lead to success.
Lauren Brubaker and her fellow researchers, writing in the journal Animals, said research on equine-assisted services has traditionally focused on human benefits, while relatively little work has focused on the horse’s behavior and welfare.
The study team set out to shed light on therapy horses’ behavior towards familiar and unfamiliar humans, and how social behaviors might be connected to their selection and retention in this line of work.
In all, 30 horses were included in the study, 19 of whom were classified as experienced and 11 as inexperienced in therapy work.
Each horse underwent sociability and temperament tests involving familiar and unfamiliar people. All tests were filmed for later behavioral analysis.
No significant differences were found between experienced and non-experienced horses in the sociability measures. However, significant differences were found between groups in a brushing test, with non-experienced horses showing more bonding behaviors towards both the familiar and unfamiliar people.
No significant differences were found between selected and non-selected horses in the temperament tests. However, non-therapy horses showed significantly more bonding behaviors towards a familiar person during a sociability test compared with selected horses.
Overall, the results showed that horses with no prior experience in therapy work showed more interest in approaching familiar and unfamiliar people under certain test conditions compared to horses with experience.
“Interestingly, this social behavior did not appear to be linked to whether a horse was chosen for, or remained in, an equine-assisted services program. In addition, horse characteristics, such as startling at a new object, did not appear to influence selection and retention for equine-assisted services work.”
“These findings,” they said, “indicate that equine-assisted service providers may have unique reasons for horse selection, and future research is needed to determine the specific characteristics of successful horses.”
In essence, the findings suggest that the social behavior and temperament of horses used in equine-assisted services may not be significantly different from other available horses not selected for this work. Instead, these selection decisions may primarily reflect subjective impressions of whether a horse was a good fit for the work.
“Interestingly, on measures where significant differences were identified, the horses not actively engaged in or selected for therapy were the ones that showed generally friendlier responses to familiar and unfamiliar humans.”
Discussing their findings, the researchers noted that selection criteria for therapeutic work varies. Little research has been done to evaluate if the selection process, or a horse’s continued involvement in this work, is associated with consistent horse behavior and temperament traits reported desirable by therapy practitioners.
While significant differences between the two groups of horses were not identified for most of the behavioral and temperament measures evaluated, some differences during brushing and sociability tests were identified.
Horses with no prior therapy experience engaged in more bonding behaviors towards familiar and unfamiliar humans during brushing, whereas, on average, experienced horses behaved neutrally or slightly antagonistically during brushing.
In addition, horses selected for ongoing work in the field showed a significant preference for an unfamiliar human (over a familiar handler) on sociability tests, whereas horses not selected for the work were just as sociable towards an unfamiliar human as selected horses and showed significantly greater sociability towards the familiar human handler.
These outcomes are especially interesting, they said, because some of the most desirable traits for selection for this work, reported by professionals, include being “tolerant”, “sociable”, and “gentle”.
It could be argued that, in the current study, the non-selected horses demonstrated some behaviors associated with greater tolerance and sociability than horses working in a therapy role.
Such results may suggest that the horse selection process could be improved by the use of standardized behavior and temperament evaluations to select horses based on their actual, instead of perceived, behavioral responses. On the other hand, it is possible that practitioners are already selecting the most successful horses but may be using different or more nuanced criteria.
For example, perhaps the most effective therapy horses are those that have moderate levels of sociability towards a handler and high levels of sociability towards an unfamiliar human participant.
In this case, sociability would still be important, but success in this line of work might depend on a pattern of social responsiveness instead of absolute sociability scores.
Such nuances may not be fully articulated or captured in surveys evaluating what traits therapy practitioners deem most important. It is possible, they said, that a more careful look at what elements of sociability in horses used in therapy might predict their selection for the work.
The authors said more research into the behavioral differences, selection, training, and welfare of these horses is warranted.
The study team comprised Brubaker, Dawn Sherwood and Monique Udell, all with Oregon State University; Katy Schroeder, with Texas Tech University; and Daniel Stroud, in private practice in Charleston, South Carolina.
Brubaker, L.; Schroeder, K.; Sherwood, D.; Stroud, D.; Udell, M.A.R. Horse Behavior towards Familiar and Unfamiliar Humans: Implications for Equine-Assisted Services. Animals 2021, 11, 2369. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082369