Horses helping: the equine impact on stress

BY MAIA GABRIEL | Evergreen reporter

A WSU graduate faculty member in preventive science took her passion for horses and preventative research and turned it into a study that has beneficial outcomes on children’s stress levels.

Faculty member Patricia Pendry studied how working with horses impacted children’s stress by testing their cortisol, the stress hormone, levels in their saliva.

Pendry’s research was published in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin last week.

To conduct her study, Pendry said she contacted Phyllis Erdman and Sue Jacobson, founders of the PATH to Success program.

PATH to Success is a program for adolescents to work with horses, Jacobson said in an email. Adolescence is the time when children begin to experience stress, and Erdman and Jacobson created the program as a healthy way for children to deal with stress.

“In equine-assisted learning programs, such as PATH to Success, horses can be used to facilitate teaching social skills such as teamwork, communication, respect, etc,” Jacobson said.

Erdman, the associate dean in the College of Education and a counseling faculty member, came from a mental health background, and Jacobson, Palouse Area Therapeutic Horsemanship coordinator, had experiences with horses, Erdman said. They decided to collaborate and create the PATH to Success program in 2008.

“We wanted to create a different kind of program that focused on everyday kind of kids and help them be happier in life and work with everyday stress, and as a result of that we started the PATH to Success program,” Erdman said.

Pendry said the research study was conducted with 130 children in 10 different schools in Moscow and Pullman over a two year period.

The children primarily did groundwork with the horses, such as going through obstacle courses and learning to communicate and read the horses’ body language, Erdman said. The children also rode the horses, but not frequently.

“Each week the activity that was done with the horses supported one or more social skills that we were focusing on,” Jacobson said.

If the children were having difficulties with the horses, such as not being able to lead a horse, they would be instructed to look ahead to where they wanted to walk and imagine themselves moving forward, Pendry said. When this tactic worked, the children were amazed and it boosted their confidence and leadership abilities.

The children do not consciously realize they are learning these skills because they are having fun with the horses, Erdman said.

“Primarily what they learned is the relationship with the horse and how to be a leader in working with the horses, and we try to translate that to leadership in human kind of activities,” Erdman said.

The children left their worries behind when they entered the horse arena.

“It helps them learn how to deal with life in general,” Erdman said.

Pendy’s research is the first clinical trial that confirms equine-facilitated learning lowers stress hormone functioning in adolescents, she said. It is also the first clinical trial to change afternoon cortisol levels in adolescents.

Pendry collected saliva samples from the children, taken in the morning, afternoon and at night, that were used to gauge the children’s cortisol levels. Cortisol is highest in the morning and drops significantly throughout the day, she said. Those who have dysregulation stress hormones will have higher levels of cortisol throughout the day.

Children who experience dysregulation from the normal functioning of a physiological stress system are more likely to develop a developmental psychopathology and are much more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues, Pendry said.

Human-animal therapy has become more popular in the past 10 years, but Pendry said she wanted proof that equine facilitated learning strengthened the normal cortisol pattern of high in the morning and lowering before one sleeps.

“All of my work is very bio-behaviorally focused,” Pendry said. “I really want to get under the skin.”

Pendry studied adolescents because between 10 to 14 years old is a time when potential vulnerabilities begin, she said. Adolescents’ brains are very sensitive to high levels of cortisol, and large amounts of cortisol may have negative effects on psychosocial development.

The goal for the trial was to determine if animal-human interaction could help prevent dysregulation of stress system functioning in adolescents, she said.

“Dysregulation of stress system functioning, particularly cortisol, is associated with not very good outcomes,” Pendry said. “This is an attempt to see if we can do something about it. Can we strengthen what we think are beneficial, normal, healthy patterns of stress system functioning? And my question is if we can do that with animals.”

The National Health Institute granted Pendry $100,000 for her research.