Equine Science Update
Reports from the world of  equine research.
Do horses find therapeutic riding stressful?
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The use of horses in therapeutic riding programs has become popular thanks to the work of organisations such as the  North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, and the Riding for the Disabled Association  in the UK.

As far as the riders are concerned, the benefits are well recognised. Horse-related activities can develop confidence and improve physical health and psychological well-being. Riding encourages muscle development and fitness, and helps develop coordination and communication skills.

But what of the horses?  Do they suffer stress or frustration through being used for therapeutic riding? Does using horses in these programs compromise their welfare?

Dr Lana Kaiser and colleagues at Michigan State University set up a study  to assess how horses behaved when used in a therapeutic riding program.  Their aim was to see if the horses  showed more signs of stress or frustration when involved in therapeutic riding than when they were used for normal recreational riding.

They watched fourteen horses being used in a therapeutic riding program, and recorded the  number of stress-related behaviors that each horse showed. Not all of the horses were ridden by all riders.

Seven behaviors were interpreted as signs of stress or irritation: ears pinned back, head raised, head tossing, head shaking, head held down, defecation, and head turning.

One hundred twenty six riders with different degrees of handicap were involved in the study, which extended over a year. The researchers grouped the riders into five categories:

recreational riders with no handicap
physical handicap- including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and partial blindness
psychological handicap - such as autism, down syndrome
children at risk of poor performance or failure at school - including children with poor school performance or disciplinary action
children with special educational needs

The research team found that  therapeutic riding with children with physical or mental handicaps was no more stressful for the horses than normal recreational riding.

However, horses showed more stressful behavior when ridden by at-risk children than by any other riders, including the children with special educational needs . This was even though the special education children seemed to be at least as disadvantaged as the at-risk children. Dr Kaiser suggests that  maybe due to a difference in attitude to the horses between the two groups of children. The at-risk children seemed to treat the horses as tools, while the special education children seemed to develop a greater empathy towards the horses.

Was stress associated with the skill level of the rider? In a separate study the research team looked at a further seven horses while they were being trained by more experienced riders. They found that these horses showed significantly more stress-related behaviors than did the horses in the therapeutic riding program.

Dr Kaiser concludes that it is possible for horses to take part in therapeutic riding programs without adverse effects.  As the horses found being ridden by at-risk children more stressful, she suggests that the time each horse is ridden by at-risk children should be  limited, both daily and weekly.

For more details see:

Stress-related behaviors among horses used in a therapeutic riding program.
Lana Kaiser, Camie R Heleski, Janice Siegford, Katharine Ann Smith.
JAVMA (2006) 228 39 - 44.
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