Do human patients impact therapy horses?

A boy kissing his horse, therapy horse research at University of Guelph.Many studies show the benefits of equine-assisted therapies for human patients, but Prof. Katrina Merkies, Animal Biosciences, aims to learn if the relationship impacts the therapy 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,” she says.

Merkies hopes to learn if horses react differently to humans with clinical issues than they do to humans without them. Therapy horses are used to help people with a range of psychological issues — the study will focus on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Working with horses at Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ont., Merkies and her research team will outfit the horses with heart rate monitors, and will also take saliva samples from horses to calculate cortisol concentrations and measure stress.

Four volunteers with PTSD will spend time in an enclosure with a horse. Then four actors will enter the enclosure, each imitating one of the PTSD patients. Merkies will video record the sessions.

“We’re looking at the behavioural responses, heart rate and cortisol of the horses,” she says. “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.”