Therapeutic riding a boon for patients, causes no undue problems for horses – study

Welfare indicators were studied throughout nine or 10 equine-assisted therapy sessions in two horses and three patients with psychomotor changes.
File image by Makena G

Therapy work poses no undue welfare problems for horses, the findings of a pilot study suggest.

María Dolores Ayala and her fellow researchers set out to explore how equine-assisted therapy affected welfare-related physiological parameters and behaviors in horses and patients.

Welfare indicators were studied throughout nine or 10 equine-assisted therapy sessions in two horses and three patients with psychomotor changes.

In the horses, the heart and respiratory rates, blood pressure, temperature, and behavioral signs were studied.

In the patients, heart rate, oxygen saturation, temperature, psychomotor and emotional parameters were analyzed. Sleep quality was also assessed.

Data collection occurred in the anticipatory phase (the 15 minutes before the start of each session), two interaction phases (after 30 minutes of horse-patient interaction on the ground, and then on horseback), and the recovery phase (the 15 minutes after the end of the session).

During the anticipatory phase, increases were noted in most of the physiological parameters of the patients, with more stress signs also seen in the horses.

This was followed by a relaxing phase for both the horses and patients during their interactions on the ground. During the riding phase which followed, the heart and respiratory rates of the horses again increased. These decreased during the recovery phase.

The patients maintained a state of relaxation during the riding phase, with low heart-rate values.

The researchers, writing in the journal Animals, said they were satisfied the horses did not seem to suffer stress attributable to the therapy sessions, but only an increase in their measured parameters associated with activity and external stimuli.

The horse responses were no different from those produced by any activity or external stimulus, they said.

Some anticipatory stress in the three patients was observed, with an increased heart rate, but they relaxed during the interactive phases on the ground and on horseback.

The patients showed improvements in their fine and gross motor function arising from the therapy, as well as the parameters related to cognitive, emotional and affective-social areas. The benefits in the patients had a positive influence on the quality of life of their families, according to the researchers.

“In addition, the quality of sleep improved on the days of therapy,” they said.

The findings from the horses, together with the well-being that the equine-assisted therapy produced in the patients, justifies its use and shows its benefit as a complementary therapy in therapeutic programs, they said.

Equine-assisted therapy work does not appear to affect the welfare of the horses as long as their ethological characteristics are respected and their health is kept in good condition, they added.

“However, more studies with a higher number of horses and patients are needed, as well as other studies that allow a classification based on the patient profile.”

They said there is also a need to complement the analysis of physiological and behavioral parameters with hormonal studies to establish a good correlation and a better understanding of the emotional response in horses and patients.

The study team comprised Ayala and Andrea Carrillo, with the University of Murcia in Spain; and Pilar Iniesta and Pedro Ferrer with the Centauro-Quirón Foundation.

Ayala, M.D.; Carrillo, A.; Iniesta, P.; Ferrer, P. Pilot Study of the Influence of Equine Assisted Therapy on Physiological and Behavioral Parameters Related to Welfare of Horses and Patients. Animals 2021, 11, 3527.

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

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