The science behind equine-assisted activities and therapeutic riding – Part 2

Learn about the science behind equine-assisted therapy and what benefits equine gain from the experience.

Discussed in Michigan State University Extension article,ACEE poster of child kissing a horse The science behind equine-assisted activities and therapeutic riding – Part I, scientific evidence was shared regarding the benefits of therapeutic riding for people with disabilities. What about another very important part of this team; the equine?

When a horse/pony project 4-H’er moves on to other life adventures; as a possible “retirement” option for their equine/project animal, the animal may be used in a therapeutic riding program. A local community 4-H Proud Equestrians Program (PEP) formerly known as Horseback Riding for the Handicapped (HRH) may be very receptive of qualified animals to utilize in their programming. Other potential community programs to donate a horse/pony to may include Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), formerly known as NARHA (formed in 1969 as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association), has been providing resources for many years, including the deciding factors of involving safe animals to use in therapeutic riding programs.

One cannot compare a typical retired equine “pasture ornament,” to an equine that has been loved, cared for and benefited from use in a therapeutic riding program. By walking around the ring with or without a rider, one can see how the equines arthritic joints are supple and do not freeze up. You can imagine how the grooming, special care and attention keep these older, retired animals feeling young.

Michigan State University conducted a study in 2004 to determine whether therapeutic riding resulted in higher levels of stress and frustration for horses than recreational riding and whether therapeutic riding with at-risk individuals was more stressful for the horses than therapeutic riding with individuals with physical or emotional handicaps. The results of the study suggest that horses ridden by physically or psychologically disabled individuals in a therapeutic riding environment are under no more stress than horses ridden by recreational riders. However, it needs to be noted that at-risk children caused more stress to the horses, suggesting that the time horses are ridden by at-risk children should be limited.

In another study conducted at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, they had compared Cortisol levels, a potential indicator of stress, in three different equine therapy disciplines. Cortisol concentrations decreased in 82 percent of the horses after the therapy sessions, indicating that they were less stressed than before the sessions, although this does not necessarily indicate a cause and effect relationship. Studies like these may be beneficial for therapeutic riding programs in identifying horses as suitable or not suitable for programming.

Now that individuals know that therapeutic riding programs are beneficial for many equines as well as the riders; retired animals may serve a very rewarding purpose.

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