In recent years, it’s been demonstrated that psychological “horse-assisted intervention” such as equine-assisted therapy (EAT), provides benefits for scores of individuals with emotional and mental health issues. Veterans and first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder seem to uniquely identify with the animal’s interdependence on herd mates, which parallels the organizational structures of the military and emergency service work environment.

While a growing body of scientific literature points to the value and efficacy of EAT for PTSD, fewer investigations have examined the equine side of the equation. How horses fare in response to traumatized individuals could have potential implications in terms of human-animal safety and ethical considerations surrounding animal welfare such as those falling under the internationally accepted standard of care framework called the Five Freedoms: Freedom from Hunger and Thirst; Freedom from Discomfort; Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease; Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour; Freedom From Fear and Distress.

“We need to consider the horse in whatever activities we are asking him to partake in,” said Canadian researcher Dr. Katrina Merkies, a University of Guelph associate professor of animal bioscience, who specializes in equine behaviour, welfare, equitation and management. Believing there was a “large gap in knowledge and more so in awareness” about the potential behavioural and physiological impacts on EAT on horses involved in PTSD programs, she set out to study the topic in the summer of 2016.

With a $10,000 grant from the Horses and Humans Research Foundation, a U.S.-based funding generator supporting research into equine-assisted activities and therapies, Dr. Merkies and her team worked with a specially selected group of 17 horses at Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ontario. The goal was to determine whether the horses differentiated between individuals based on physical characteristics or another means of communication such as emotional cues.

“So, we controlled for physical characteristics as much as possible,” she explained. “We found four willing volunteers to participate in the research who were experiencing PTSD and then matched them as close as possible to four control volunteers who resembled them in gender, height, weight and age.” The participants were dressed the same, and an acting coach trained the control volunteers to move in a similar fashion to the PTSD volunteers, so it looked like two identical people to the horse.

Video footage was taken to compare each horse’s reactions in the presence of the PTSD sufferer first, followed by the control group member. Heart rates were also monitored, salivary cortisol concentrations measured and close attention was paid to the horse’s body language including head height, ear orientation, gait and distance from human.

In general, the horses didn’t respond differently to the paired individuals, indicating they were responding to physical versus emotional cues. Dr. Merkies said this wasn’t surprising, as previous results from her own and other laboratories showed this to be the case.

One interesting and unexpected result was the difference in equine heart rates, not between the control group and PTSD subjects, but between persons with and without horse experience. More experienced horse people elicited a higher heart rate in the horses than those people with little to no previous exposure to horses. Dr. Merkies has noted this reaction in previous studies involving equine behaviour and postulates, “Experienced horse people may come into contact with the horse with expectations and, in the horse’s experience, are likely to issue demands, whereas a more nervous person with no experience would act differently and induce less stress.”

EAT program operators must understand the horse’s interactions, said Dr. Merkies. “If too much or too little expectation is put on the horse, it may compromise their welfare. For example, if the horse is expected to understand the emotional need of a human and respond in an empathetic manner, and then it doesn’t, the horse may then be blamed for not interacting appropriately. Similarly, if the belief is that horses mirror the human’s emotions, the lack of a horse’s response to a human experiencing mental trauma may lead the human to believe the horse doesn’t care about them, which may affect how the horse is regarded.”

She added, “While I will never deny that there is something magical about being in the presence of a horse, I am also a great proponent of the horse and trying to understand their world well enough to be able to provide for their needs rather than them providing for our needs.”

But isn’t the goal of EAT to help people? The guiding philosophy behind Paul and Terry Nichols’ program in Quesnel, British Columbia, The Forge, explains and clarifies the apparent paradox. “Our whole program is based around the horses’ mental welfare as the goal,” said Terry Nichols. “Through active listening to the horse’s body language, it’s up to the people to problem-solve what the horses need and how to help them.”

In a healthy herd, the lead horse “sets the tone” as to when the individuals should be on alert for their safety or relaxed, and that leads to a feeling of confidence in that particular horse, she said. “I want to replicate that when we’re working with horses. We may have a ‘mission’ to brush the horse, but the goal is the relationship. When reading the horse’s body language while you’re completing the mission of brushing, if you notice the horse is stiff, distracted, they’re moving into your space or are just mentally checked out, then you abort your mission for the relationship and problem-solve. What is lacking in the dynamic that’s creating this in the horse?”

Nichols said EAT isn’t about the horse “doing for us,” rather, how we can change to give the horses what they need to feel comfortable and safe. “When we fulfill their needs, wow, we can accomplish some great things and have a lot of fun. The atmosphere is relaxed and the horses are attentive and motivated. We want them to participate actively and willingly in what we do.”

Registered psychologist Dr. Caroline LeBlanc feels the same. “The horse is an equal,” she said. “The horse has a voice in the therapy process.” She owns and operates Serene View Ranch in Alexandra, Prince Edward Island, home to
a wide range of psychology-based services, not the least of which is EAT for the veteran community. Programming is delivered by Dr. LeBlanc and an ever-growing team of therapists, equine specialists and other practitioners –
and, of course, her herd of 14 horses.

“It’s based on respect, caring and equal partnership and a belief that they’re separate from us in that they have their own strengths like intuition and knowledge and healing ability for clients,” she said. “Yes, they’re always surrounded by trauma, but they’re also surrounded by healing that’s happening in the clients. And they’re surrounded by us – myself, the psychologist or one of my mental health therapists and an equine specialist. There’s always two of us there. They feel safe, just like our clients feel safe.”

Dr. LeBlanc’s EAT sessions run five days a week, serving about 35 participants in that time. She continuously rotates her horses into and out of EAT sessions. When they aren’t working or undergoing individualized training, the animals live outside 24/7 with a constant supply of hay, temperature-controlled water and run-in shelters. Likewise, Nichols’ herd, also numbering 14, enjoys an outdoor lifestyle, with winters off together in a big field. They’re brought back “into shape mentally” in early spring before programming starts.

A a paper published in the fall 2017 issue of the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, University of Missouri-Columbia scientists supports Dr. Merkies’ findings, concluding that horses didn’t experience undue physiological stress nor exhibit behavioural stress when handled and ridden by veterans with PTSD versus experienced riders for a six-week period. Again, results showed the horses were slightly more stressed with experienced riders, suggesting the horses anticipated that these individuals expect more in terms of performance from the animals.

But that’s not to say all horses are inherently suited for EAT. And that’s okay, said Dr. LeBlanc. One of her mares, Vegas, will be rehomed this spring. She simply “doesn’t want to apply for the job,” she laughed. “She’s well-bred, well-trained. She’s a beautiful show horse. Unfortunately, the minute she’s in the presence of a client with anxiety, she loses it. She gets anxious, she starts pacing, and that makes the client anxious. So, we’re not pushing her into it. You know what? There’s other jobs in the world. She’s not a therapy horse, she is a performance horse.”

The Nichols won’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole either. If a horse isn’t relaxed, confident and connected in the therapeutic setting, he’s put on what they call a “reset” and is taken out of the program for trail riding, liberty work, one-on-one attention – whatever the animal requires. Sometimes, said Nichols, no amount of resetting helps. “You’ve put so much time into their reset that you realize maybe this work isn’t for them because it takes so much to keep them mentally sound,” said Nichols, citing the recent example of Chester, one of their top therapy horses. Carefully watching his demeanor for a period of time, Nichols decided he was growing “irritated.” They put Chester up for sale. He’s now a boarder at their barn, happy with his “forever person.” Nichols said it wasn’t an easy decision. “We loved him so much and he was so talented, but there comes a point where it has to become about the horse and not about the people.” And, in truth, a horse in this mindset would not be an asset to a troubled person.

As outlined in Horse Canada’s September/October 2018 article “Helping Hooves,” probing the industry surrounding EAT and veterans, the field is kind of a wild west, with no national regulations or certification. Nichols and Dr. LeBlanc hope this will soon change. Last year, both their facilities were among five that participated in a national pilot study on EAT’s effectiveness for veterans and their families. The study, orchestrated by the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research, was commissioned by Veterans Affairs Canada. The findings
are slated for release later this year. Practitioners hope the investigation will lead not only to funding opportunities, but also national regulations and standards of practice – parameters to protect both humans and equines.

Meanwhile, Dr. Merkies says she and her team continue to study the physiological and behavioural responses of horses during EAT in the field. “As we learn more and more about horse-human interactions, I’m pleased with the level of interest and desire for knowledge that I encounter in people I talk to about this area of research.”

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