By Dr. Becker
A new study from Washington State University concludes that kids who work with horses have a significant reduction in stress, as measured by markers in their saliva. The study was published in April in the American Psychological Association's Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin.
According to Patricia Pendry, co-author of the study and a developmental psychologist at WSU:
"We were coming at this from a prevention perspective. We are especially interested in optimizing health stress hormone production in young adolescents, because we know from other research that healthy stress hormone patterns may protect against the development of physical and mental health problems."
Pendry studies the physiological effects of stress and the usefulness of stress prevention programs on human development.
WSU Human-Equine Study Is the First to Measure Stress Levels of Participants
The WSU study represents the first evidence-based research in the field of human-equine interaction to record changes in participants' levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which is very easy to measure in saliva.
While most programs involving interaction between humans and companion animals such as dogs, cats and horses are thought to improve self-esteem, behavior, and social competence in kids, there is very little scientifically confirmed research to support such assumptions – nor do we understand the root causes for the positive experiences people in the programs report.
But three years ago, Pendry was able to secure a $100,000 National Institutes of Health grant to study the "hard science" surrounding the effects of human-animal interaction on child development. Her project involved students in the 5th through 8th grades who would participate in a 12-week equine-facilitated learning program, so she partnered with a therapeutic riding program at WSU's College of Veterinary Medicine. Pendry also happens to have an extensive background in riding and working with horses in a therapeutic setting.
12-Week Program Significantly Reduced Stress Hormone Levels in the Children Who Participated
According to Pendry, stress hormone functioning is based on how we perceive stress, and also how we deal with it. Stress is about not only our experiences in life, but also the way we characterize the magnitude of stressors. For example, a child who encounters a large, unfamiliar animal is likely to experience more stress than when she comes upon a familiar, smaller animal.
Pendry and her colleagues, including the director of the riding program, created an after-school program for 130 kids. The children were randomly assigned to either participate in the program, or be waitlisted. Participants were then brought by bus from school to the stables for 12 weeks. Using natural horsemanship techniques, the program provided weekly 90-minute sessions in which the children learned about the behavior, care, grooming, handling, and riding of horses.
Pendry and her team collected six samples of saliva from the participating children over a two-day period both before and after the 12-week program. The samples were evaluated for levels and patterns of stress hormone functioning by measuring cortisol, and according to the researchers, the results were very encouraging:
"We found that children who had participated in the 12-week program had significantly lower stress hormone levels throughout the day and in the afternoon, compared to children in the waitlisted group," said Pendry.
According to Pendry, these results are exciting because higher base levels of cortisol, especially in the afternoon, are thought to be a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology.
Study Provides First Evidence-Based Research on the Benefits of Therapeutic Horsemanship Programs
The researchers believe the results of the WSU study provide scientific evidence to support claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals, parents and children who report the positive effects of these programs. Pendry also hopes the study will encourage the development of alternative after-school programs for kids.
And while her research focused on stress prevention, Pendry thinks it could also serve to help evaluate the impact on kids of high levels of stress and physical or mental health challenges.
You can download the full study here.