New research shows that horses make us happy

Research has proved what H&H readers have always known: horses have a positive effect on children. 

A study from Washington State University, published last month (28 April), claims to be the first evidence-based research investigating the interaction between horses and children, and its effect on levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Backed by a $100,000 (£59,000) grant from the National Institute of Health, the project assessed 130 “normally developing” children aged 11-13. They participated in a 12-week equine-facilitated learning programme over a period of 2 years.

Children were randomly included on or wait listed for the programme, which consisted of 90min a week learning about horse behaviour, care and riding.

Their cortisol levels were monitored using saliva samples. It was found that children who had participated had “significantly lower stress hormone levels compared with the wait listed group”. This was noted particularly in the afternoon, when stress typically increases.

Study leader Dr Patricia Pendry told H&H her findings gave “scientific credit to the claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals and parents who have reported a positive impact from these types of programmes”.

Susie Little, who runs Tower House Horses in Hampshire — an equine-assisted learning centre — said: “It is wonderful to have hard data to back up what we know to be true.

“Almost without exception we see changes in behaviour that don’t just last for the duration of the session, but impact on the children long afterwards,” she said.

This latest research “makes perfect sense”, according to ex-racehorse charity Greatwood, which also helps children with special needs. Spokesman Sasha Thorbek-Hooper said: “One of the main things we notice with our students is their reduced anxiety when around horses.”

So Daddy, don’t begrudge that cheque for the pony: science proves it makes for a happier child…

First published in Horse and Hound on 22 May 2014