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‘Horsing around’ reduces stress in youth

Youth involved in an equine after-school program showed significantly lower levels of stress hormone in their saliva

Young girl with horse in a pasture.

New research from Washington State University reveals how youth who work with horses experience a substantial reduction in stress — and the evidence lies in kids’ saliva.

The results are published in the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin this month.

“We were coming at this from a prevention perspective,” said Patricia Pendry, a developmental psychologist at WSU who studies how stress “gets under the skin” and the effects of prevention programs on human development. “We are especially interested in optimizing healthy 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.”

Her work is the first evidence-based research within the field of human-equine interaction to measure a change in participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Three years ago, Pendry led a research project to engage students in Grades 5-8 in a 12-week equine-facilitated learning program in Pullman, Wash.

Working with PATH director Sue Jacobson and Phyllis Erdman from the WSU College of Education, Pendry designed and implemented an after-school program serving 130 typically developing children over a two-year period that bused students from school to the barn for 12 weeks.

Children were randomly assigned to participate in the program or be wait-listed. Based on natural horsemanship techniques, the program provided 90 minutes weekly to learn about horse behaviour, care, grooming, handling, riding and interaction.

“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 wait-listed group,” she said. “We get excited about that because we know that higher base levels of cortisol — ± particularly in the afternoon — are considered a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology.”

Pendry said the experimental design underlying the study gives more scientific credit to the claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals, parents and children who have reported a positive impact from these types of programs. In addition, she hopes the results will lead to development of alternative after-school programs.

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