How equine-assisted therapy can help both horses and people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be the focus of a new study by University of Guelph researchers.

Prof. Katrina Merkies, Animal Biosciences, has received a $10,000 innovation research grant for the study from the Horses and Humans Research Foundation, which supports research on equine-assisted therapies.

“This study is about the welfare of the horses and looking at the behavioural and physiological impact of this therapy on horses,” said Merkies.

“Past studies on equine therapy have shown benefits for people, but what does this therapy mean for horses? The use of horses in therapy is growing, so for their well-being, it’s important to figure out what this will involve.”

Merkies and her research team will work with horses at Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch, south of Guelph.

She will outfit horses with heart rate monitors. She will take saliva samples from horses to calculate cortisol concentrations and measure stress.

“We want to learn if horses react differently to humans with clinical issues than they do to humans without them,” she said.

“We considered a range of potential psychological issues, but settled on PTSD, since we wanted to narrow it down to one clinical diagnosis.”

For the study, four volunteers with PTSD will spend time in an enclosure with a horse. Then four actors will enter the enclosure, each imitating one of the PTSD patients.

“We’re looking at the behavioural responses, heart rate and cortisol of the horses,” said Merkies, who will video record the sessions. “Does the horse respond differently to the individuals? Our hypothesis is that horses are able to distinguish between humans with emotional needs, and respond differently to them.”

Merkies is starting the preparation work, with the plan to begin evaluations in the summer of 2016.