Loving thy neigh-bours can be very good for body and soul

HORSE SENSE: Some benefit simply from being in the presence of horses. Photo: UNE
HORSE SENSE: Some benefit simply from being in the presence of horses. Photo: UNE

It has been well-documented that being around animals helps us to relax, and assistance dogs for a variety of issues are now common place.

The benefits of being around horses are also increasingly well-documented, whether it involves being in the saddle (known as hippotherapy) or simply being alongside them.

A study called Equine Facilitated Therapy and Trauma: Current knowledge, future needs by Marlys Staudt and Donna Cherry (2017) reviewed nine studies and concluded 'the findings suggest that EFT may be a useful intervention for youth and adults with PTSD and trauma symptoms as a result of child maltreatment and sexual abuse, combat, interpersonal violence, and other traumatic events'.

The University of New England has also found just being in the presence of a horse can have a calming effect on people.

She found that almost half of the adults were physiologically calmer in the presence of horses ...

It referred to the field of human-horse interactions as equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) and psychology student Saan Ecker, and her supervisor, Associate Professor Amy Lykins, are looking at how people who hadn't had any previous experience with horses would react when interacting naturally with them.

"The therapeutic value of the natural relationship between animals, such as cats and dogs, and humans are well-documented but information on the benefits of conducting therapy in the presence of horses is mostly anecdotal," Saan said.

She found that almost half of the adults were physiologically calmer in the presence of horses based on heart rate variability.

"In individual experiments, nine adults sat on chairs in a yard where they spent 10 minutes with five different horses who roamed freely in the yard. We compared the HRV measured while in the yard to a pre-exposure baseline and found an improvement in 40 per cent of the test subjects but a deterioration in 23 per cent across 43 ten-minute interactions between humans and horses," Saan said.

"What is exciting is that the combined results showed a positive effect in HRV across the different phases of the experiment despite the experience being quite varied for different people," she said, noting that her findings support the need for a client-focused approach rather than a one-size fits all approach to EAP.

"When you add this finding to the aggregated results, it could mean some people will benefit cumulatively simply from being in the presence of horses."

Saan also explored how the horses used in the study reacted to being in the presence of people.

"The horses we used in the study were used to people and physically and emotionally healthy. They were free to choose to approach the participants or not. They chose to spend time in close proximity with the people seated in the yard in over 70 per cent of the recorded interactions.

"EAP is a growing field with a limited evidence base. I hope to next explore horses' willingness to interact with people in-depth as well as the impact of EAP on mindfulness," Saan said.