“We were coming at this from a prevention perspective,” said Patricia Pendry, a developmental psychologist at Washington State University (WSU).
“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.”
For her study, she analyzed the effects of human-equine interaction by measuring the kids’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“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,” she said.
While human-animal interaction programs with animals has shown to improve self-esteem and behavior in children, there was limited scientifically valid research to back up these claims.
Three years ago, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) asked researchers to study the effects of human-animal interaction on child development.
With the support of a $100,000 NIH grant, Pendry led a research project centered around a therapeutic riding program, known as PATH (Palouse Area Therapeutic Horsemanship), in Pullman, Washington. She notes it was a good fit, as she has been riding and working with horses since she was a child.
Working with PATH director Sue Jacobson and Phyllis Erdman from the WSU College of Education, Pendry designed an after-school program serving 130 children over a two-year period. The kids, in grades five to eight, were bussed from school to the barn for 12 weeks.
Children were randomly assigned to participate in the program or be waitlisted.
Each week the kids who were chosen for the program were at the barn for about 90 minutes, learning about horse behavior, care, grooming, handling, riding, and interaction.
The kids provided six samples of saliva over a two-day period both before and after the program so the researchers could measure cortisol and stress.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Pendry noted that the experiment’s design gives more scientific credit to the claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals, parents, and children who have reported a positive impact from these types of programs.
She added she hopes the study’s results will lead to the development of alternative after-school programs.
“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,” she said.
The study was published in the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin.
Source: Washington State University