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Kids who play with horses may be healthier

A young girl riding a horse
A young girl riding a horseMorguefile/Freephoto

There has long been an interest in the observation that playing with horses and other animals appears to promote better health in kids. Kids who work with horses experience a substantial lowering in stress reports Washington State University on April 24, 2014. Patricia Pendry, who is a developmental psychologist at WSU, says the focus of this research was on prevention.

Pendry said her research team was particularly interested in optimizing healthy stress hormone production in young adolescents. She also says it is known from other research that healthy stress hormone patterns may have a protective effect against the development of physical and mental health problems. This is the first evidence-based research within the field of human-equine interaction which has measured a change in participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Human-animal interaction programs with horses, dogs, cats and other pet animals have been said to improve social competence, self-esteem and behavior in kids. However, scientifically valid research to support these claims along with an understanding of the underlying mechanism for why people report a positive experience in these programs has been very limited. With funding from a $100,000 NIH grant Pendry and her research team engaged students in grades 5-8 in a 12-week equine facilitated learning program in Pullman, Washington. The program provided 90 minutes a week for the kids to learn about various aspects of taking care of horses.

Saliva samples from the kids were taken over a two-day period both prior to and after the 12-week program. Pendry made a comparison of the levels and patterns of stress hormone functioning by measuring cortisol levels in the saliva. She said the results were exciting. The kids who had participated in the 12-week program had significantly lower stress hormone levels during the day and in the afternoon in comparison to kids in the waitlisted group. Pendry said it is known that higher base levels of cortisol, particularly in the afternoon, are considered to be a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology.

The results of this study have been published in the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin this month. Researchers have said that associations between lower average daily cortisol and afternoon levels of cortisol and developmental psychopathology and adolescent health are not completely understood. However, the researchers have suggested that lower basal cortisol levels in a relatively normal adolescent sample may offer a protective influence against the development of psychopathology and health problems in certain populations of kids.

The bottom line is this study suggests that equine facilitated learning may be an effective approach to support positive development in adolescence. It appears reasonable to assume this may also be true in dealing with other friendly animals such as dogs, cats and pet rabbits. It is really exciting to consider encouraging kids to spend quality time with these friendly animals may really promote better overall health for them.