Research: Good News/Bad News on Benefits of Horses for Humans

From skepiticism about psychological benefits to documentation of rehabilitation of stroke victims, horses are a hot topic in new fields of research
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News about various forms of equine-assisted therapy is now supported by university-based research. But it's not all good news. Did research reports last week cancel each other out? (Photo by Willem Degen)

News about various forms of equine-assisted therapy is now supported by university-based research. But it's not all good news. Did research reports last week cancel each other out? (Photo by Willem Degen)

The relatively new fields of equine-assisted therapy, equine-related treatment, and various forms of what we used to just call "hippotherapy" are exploding with a new body of documented research. Hard drives full of data have been collected in a recent cluster of studies conducted at universities around the world. 

While the research seems to divide itself between the physical rehabilitation benefits of riding itself and the psychological benefits of interaction with horses, the overall impression is that--in one way or another--horses are good for people who are recovering from problems as diverse as debilitating physical handicaps and the psychological trauma of combat, abusive relationships and various forms of mental handicap, injury or illness.

The flow of research is so strong and steady, in fact, that a cautionary paper appeared last week. Was it pouring weedkiller on the rosy garden of horses-are-good-for-us blossoms? Maybe, or maybe not: researchers caution that documentation of psychological benefits of horse interactions need to be carefully documented and involve controls.

“Equine-Related Treatments For Mental Disorders Lack Empirical Support: A Systematic Review of Empirical Investigations” was the title of a paper published lby researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi in the Journal of Clinical Psychology

“All studies were compromised by a substantial number of threats to validity, calling into question the meaning and clinical significance of their findings. Additionally, studies failed to provide consistent evidence that ERT is superior to the mere passage of time in the treatment of any mental disorder.”

That qualifies as rain on the merry parade of feel-good testimonies for equine-related therapy. And the clap of thunder: “The current evidence base does not justify the marketing and utilization of ERT for mental disorders. Such services should not be offered to the public unless and until well-designed studies provide evidence that justify different conclusions.”

The instinctive response is, “Well, horses certainly can’t hurt.” But are we guilty of the bias of those who are already indoctrinated to horses? The truth, of course, is that horses can hurt if study participants are not properly prepared for their interaction with large animals, or if they are unable to relax during the experience. Fear, and the stress hormones stimulated by it, are not therapeutic.

If we assume that horses are good for everyone, we might be making a very grave mistake, even with possible consequences. Therapy choices must be carefully thought through by caregiver advisers.

Even with “normal” children, horses bring out different personality traits. Many of us grew up with siblings or friends or friends of friends who weren’t nice to their animals, or who resented having to go to horse shows on weekends or do chores in the afternoons. 

There were also children who enjoyed horse activities not for any enriching interaction with the horse, but for the sheer adrenalin-producing experience of racing a pony or for galloping through the woods at breakneck speed. Others perfected their equitation for the reward of ribbons and trophies to fill their shelves, and had little genuine bonding with any animals.

Remember them?

These were the kids who didn’t “get it”. They didn’t hang around the barn or decorate their horses’ stalls for Christmas or spend hours braiding tails with neon-colored yarn. They always had better things to do.

Even if their parents read all the research, these children still might not ever "get" what horses might have offered them, if they had only been open to it.

It will be a challenge to the horse industry, in its current status quo, to know how to deal with an influx of children who don’t fit the predictable mold. Are we ready to meet the very high expectations that some parents may have? 

Parents once opted for horses to keep children out of the mall, off the streets, or away from the television. Will they now send their children to the stable instead of to the therapist?

Adults too now seek out horses for self-healing or on the advice of a therapist. Will they find the right environments and the right horses? 

Programs like the ambitious and visionary "Time to Ride" initiative are well-armed to lead the charge, although the US horse industry is still pulling itself back together after the shakedown of the recession, and the challenges that horse businesses face in any economy.

Aspiring actress Kari Nelson writes about it on her blog, “Horseback riding was the first thing that allowed me to feel proud of myself, to be a leader, to trust someone else not to hurt me.” And that’s the message we believe, it’s our mantra. Horses are good for us. 

But it's not all bad news.

The good news from research comes from the field of neurological rehabilitation. There are many new ideas for helping stroke victims recover. 

“A hippotherapy simulator is effective to shift weight bearing toward the affected side during gait in patients with stroke” is the title of a paper published last week in the journal NeuroRehabilitation. South Korean researchers in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and physiology collaborated on this study, which compared a group of stroke victims who used a mechanical horse-like device against a control group.

Hippotherapy simulators have also been tested in South Korea for therapeutic use in children with cerebral palsy as well as to improve the balance of elderly people.

The researchers concluded that the rehabilitation of trunk muscles was facilitated by the stimulation of an hour a day in the device. Using mechanical horses has been seen as an effective alternative to live horses in several universities who hope to give patients the benefits of rhythmic stimulation without the fear of mounting a horse or the logistics of transporting patients to stables.

Those riding instructors have managed to select the right horses for their riders.

Across the landscape of expanded expectations for what a child or adult can bring home from an experience with a horse, we find more possible variations than the horse industry or any horse could ever meet.

I'm reminded that sometimes the best rides are the ones where you set out without any destination in mind, on a loose rein. Maybe you see a trail you always meant to take but were always on your way to somewhere else. 

Introducing people to horses should be a bit like that: sit back and see where this experience will take you.

If research told us to expect a certain result or a measurable increment of improvement in a condition, it just might ruin the ride. We're all different and so are the horses. Holding equine therapy to conventional research standards may not be possible or advisable but it shouldn't detract from the value of the therapy. It's worth a try, and it can change someone's life profoundly, even if it can't always be statistically proven.

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