Do horses respond differently to people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Professor Katrina Merkies, Animal Biosciences at the University of Guelph plans to find out. She has received a $10,000 innovation research grant from the Horses and Humans Research Foundation, which supports research on equine-assisted therapies and will begin a study this summer.

“The effect of equine assisted therapy on humans has received increasing amounts of study but very little is known about the impact on the horse,” says Merkies.

For the study, four adult volunteers with PTSD will spend time in an enclosure with a horse, all the while being videotaped. Then, after viewing the footage, four adult actors will enter the enclosure, each imitating one of the PTSD patients. Neither will have physical contact with the horses but may talk, yell and move about as they choose.

Horse behaviour will be observed such as: gait, head height, body orientation, ear orientation and distance to human. The horses will be wearing heart rate monitors and saliva samples will be taken. Data gathered will compare heart rate and cortisol concentrations to measure stress.

The study will occur at Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ontario, collaborating with program director and head instructor, Nikki Duffield. The 20 horses to be used have all gone through a strict selection process, used by Sunrise, including a trial period to determine the horse’s suitability for their program.

“It will be interesting to see if the length of time horses have spent in the program has an effect on their response to humans,” says Merkies. “I am also very interested in the role of personality – both horse and human – in the horse-human relationship. Are there specific personalities of horses that mesh better with specific personalities of humans to achieve the most benefit from equine assisted therapy?”

To ensure participant safety, two instructors (as well as the researchers) will be present at all times during the research trials. All instructors have been trained and certified with the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA). If you are interested in participating in this research ethics board approved study, please contact [email protected].

“The use of horses in therapy is growing,” says Merkies, “so for their well-being, it’s important to determine the behavioural and physiological impacts of this therapy on the horses themselves.”