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Riders’ effects on therapy horses up for study

(Sunrise-Therapeutic.ca)

A new study in southern Ontario plans to look at the effects of the relationship between a therapy horse and its rider from the horse’s point of view.

Katrina Merkies, a professor in the University of Guelph’s animal biosciences department, has picked up a $10,000 research grant from the Ohio-based Horses and Humans Research Foundation to study how equine-assisted activities (EAA) may help horses as well as people.

The study, she said in a recent release, “is about the welfare of the horses and looking at the behavioural and physiological impact of this therapy on horses.

“Past studies on equine therapy have shown benefits for people, but what does this therapy mean for horses? The use of horses in therapy is growing, so for their well-being, it’s important to figure out what this will involve.”

The study will explore, in part, whether horses react differently to people with clinical issues than they do to people without them.

For study purposes, she said, “we considered a range of potential psychological issues, but settled on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), since we wanted to narrow it down to one clinical diagnosis.”

The effects of EAA on people are well documented and still being researched, Merkies said in her grant application, but EAA’s effects on horses have had relatively little attention.

“Combined with increased public attention to the welfare of animals used for human purposes, clearly there is a need for research in this area,” she wrote.

But for “useful research” to proceed, basic questions still have to be answered to fashion future trials that can stand up to peer review and offer “unbiased empirical data” on which to set up future therapy programs.

For instance, she wrote, “proponents of learning theory believe that animals respond to the physical cues they receive, independent of who/what delivers the cues.”

It’s assumed, she wrote, but not yet scientifically tested whether horses actually respond to human emotions when working with people with psychological or emotional trauma.

If horses in fact respond only to physical cues, she wrote, then independent control subjects can be used in researching therapy horses’ responses — but if it turns out horses also respond to “emotional emanations,” then research in this field will have to look further into emotional relationships or connections between horses and humans.

“This research will further this basic understanding which will underpin all future research not only into EAA, but also into the horse-human and animal-human relationships,” Merkies wrote.

“The importance of fully understanding the variables that affect this relationship is essential considering that the most significant factor contributing to the risk of human injury when working around horses is the relationship between the horse and the human.”

Merkies and her team plan to work with horses at Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre at nearby Puslinch, outfitting the animals with heart rate monitors and using saliva samples from horses to gauge stress — in part by measuring concentrations of cortisol, a hormone horses produce in response to stress.

The study calls for four volunteers with PTSD to spend time in an enclosure with one of a study group of 20 horses. Four actors will enter the enclosure, each imitating one of the PTSD patients.

“We’re looking at the behavioural responses, heart rate and cortisol of the horses,” Merkies said. “Does the horse respond differently to the individuals? Our hypothesis is that horses are able to distinguish between humans with emotional needs, and respond differently to them.”

Evaluations are expected to begin this summer, the university said. — AGCanada.com Network

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