Therapeutic horseback riding programs for veterans with PTSD don’t stress out the horses involved, research shows.
Veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder often are prescribed this type of therapy in order to cope with anxiety, but little has been known about how these programs affect the stress levels in horses.
The results show that therapeutic horseback riding, also known as THR, may provide a viable repurposing for retired or unwanted horses.
“Estimates have shown that approximately 6,300 horses globally work in therapeutic horseback riding programs at more than 800 centers,” says Rebecca Johnson, a professor in the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, and the professor of gerontological nursing in the Sinclair School of Nursing.
“While there is a growing body of literature demonstrating the beneficial outcomes from THR programs for people with developmental, cognitive, and psychosocial disabilities, such as veterans with PTSD, it is imperative that we consider horse stress levels to ensure their health and welfare.
Two groups were recruited for the study: veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD and healthy, experienced riders. Each individual horse was ridden in accordance with an approved program for approximately 60 minutes weekly at the same time of day for six weeks. Veterans learned basic horseback riding skills as well as how to apply riding tack to the horse, mounting, and dismounting. Experienced riders were asked to go through the same actions as the veterans.
In order to measure physiological stressors on the horses, blood samples were collected 30 minutes before classes started, after the riding tack was applied to the horse, and after the riding class at the first, third, and sixth weeks. Cortisol, which is a part of the central nervous system and a good indicator of stress in the body, was measured as well as glucose concentrations and other measurements.
Researchers assessed behavioral stress indicators by viewing videotapes of the horses obtained for two-minute periods during the first, third, and sixth weeks. Using a stress scale, two researchers scored the videos involving different horses to determine restlessness, jumpiness, and startle-reflexes, as well as how accepting and calm the horses were at other times.
“Findings from our physiological and behavioral data indicated that the horses were not unduly stressed by the THR work; however, we found differences in the horses’ stress levels between rider groups,” Johnson says. You can read more about this important study at our website here.