Animal-assisted therapy has proven emotionally beneficial for patients suffering from both psychological and physical trauma, including stroke victims, cancer patients, and people struggling with depression. A recent study out of Washington State University has revealed children who work with horses are able to dramatically reduce their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

"We were coming at this from a prevention perspective," lead researcher Patricia Pendry said in a statement. "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."

Pendry and her colleagues from Palouse Area Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine established an after-school program consisting of 130 normally developing children. Students between fifth and eighth grade were bused to an equine facilitated learning program in Pullman, Wash., over the course of a 12-week period. PATH has been providing its therapeutic horseback riding program for the past 30 years.

Students were randomly assigned to either participate in the program or were waitlisted. Students that were allowed to participate in the program were given 90 minutes per week to work on horse behavior, care, grooming, handling, riding, and interaction. At the end of the 12-week period, participating students were asked to provide six saliva samples for a two-day period. Researchers used cortisol samples to compare the levels and patterns of the stress hormone for each participant.

"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 waitlisted group," Pendry explained. "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."

This unique study measuring the levels of stress hormones based on human-equine interaction was made possible by $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The NIH began looking for researchers interested in the relationship between assisted-animal therapy and childhood development three years ago. Pendry, an avid horseback rider since she was a child, jumped at the opportunity to conduct research delving into therapeutic horsemanship.

"The beauty of studying stress hormones is that they can be sampled quite noninvasively and conveniently by sampling saliva in naturalistic settings as individuals go about their regular day," Pendry added. "Partly because of NIH's effort to bring hard science to the field of human-animal interaction, program implementers now have scientific evidence to support what they are doing.”

Source: Smith A, Roeter S, Pendry P. Randomized Trial Examines Effects of Equine Facilitated Learning on Adolescents’ Basal Cortisol Levels. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin. 2014.