Greg Scannell, CSP •

Equestrian Mental Health

In this monthly column we typically address the safety and health hazards that are continually posed to our horses and handlers. I think the end of the year timing is prudent for taking an alternative perspective—to explore the positive health benefits of having horses in our lives. It has been said, “There is nothing better for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse. ” I have found this personally to be true. During my years at university I had a tough time figuring out who it was I was supposed to be. The radical change in environment and routine led me down some poorly chosen paths. It was not until my junior year that I discovered riding and working with horses. The time I spent, and continue to spend, with these magnificent creatures taught me calm, strength, and gratitude in a much needed time. There is something intrinsic when nearby a horse that makes me feel good, but is that due to my specific nature or that of the horse—perhaps both. I am sure if you are reading this (equine publication) I am sure you feel the same way, yet there may be some science behind this unexplained phenomenon. Recent studies and continued success at equine therapy centers echo my story and experience.

Recently a small pilot study at The Ohio State University has shown that patients with Alzheimer’s dementia benefited from spending time with horses. The experience of grooming, walking and feeding horses, under supervision, had a positive effect on the patients. Care givers reported the patients to be in better spirits and less likely to resist care or become upset later in the day when they had spent time with horses. Family members of the patients that spent time on the farm reported their loved ones really were engaged with the experience. The patients would recall the days experience volunteering to share their memories—a rare behavior on typical days of treatment in the clinic. In addition to the boon to mental health, physical health was reported as a benefit as well. Patients that were bound to wheel chairs would attempt to stand on their own, while other patients would also push the boundaries of their physical limitations while on the farm. Although this study has ended, several of the families still visit the farm which offers senior assisted equine therapy in central Ohio.

The implication of a healing force is not one way from horse to human. Humans can have a calming effect on the mental health of horses too. A recent study has explored the effects of human social contact on the electrocardiogram (EKG) and the behavior of horses. A key finding of the study showed that human petting and grooming of the horses produced a slowing of heart rate—indicative of relaxation and lower levels of stress. The study also showed that successive trials involving the same trainer and horse found the frequency of dropped heartbeats to increase. Horses build relationships similar to the way we do. It would seem their comfort level increases as they continue to familiarize themselves with their handlers.

Of course the healing force shared between horse and man is one aspect of a complex relationship. The possibility of excitation and accidents is constant. Not every horse will allow human contact; indeed, some might feel threatened or more stressed from human presence. Always use your safest judgment when handling and riding horses, no matter how relaxed you feel, stay alert. The importance of preventative safety remains paramount. Daily inspections of the environment your horses live in goes a long way in preventing emergencies. We at Safety Check Inc. are trained in hazard analysis and accident prevention. For an equine safety consultation or barn walkthrough, please feel free to contact us at (815) 475-9991.

Works Cited
  • Lynch, J. J., Frederick Fregin, G., Mackie, J. B. and Monroe, R. R. (1974), Heart Rate Changes in the Horse to Human Contact. Psychophysiology, 11: 472–478. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1974.tb00575.x
  • Dabelko-Schoeny, Holly; Phillips, Gary; Darrough, Emily; DeAnna, Sarah; Jarden, Marie; Johnson, Denise; Lorch, Gwendolen. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, Volume 27, Number 1, March 2014, pp. 141-155(15)

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