Veterans with PTSD can benefit from equine-assisted therapy. What about the horses?

Laurie McDuffee and William Montelpare, both UPEI professors, conducted their research at Serene View Ranch in Stratford, which runs equine-assisted therapy programs. In this photo, from left, Isabelle Aubrey, equine specialist, Caroline Leblanc, owner of Serene View Ranch, McDuffee and Montelpare.  (Submitted by Atlantic Veterinary College/UPEI - image credit)
Laurie McDuffee and William Montelpare, both UPEI professors, conducted their research at Serene View Ranch in Stratford, which runs equine-assisted therapy programs. In this photo, from left, Isabelle Aubrey, equine specialist, Caroline Leblanc, owner of Serene View Ranch, McDuffee and Montelpare. (Submitted by Atlantic Veterinary College/UPEI - image credit)

A new study conducted on Prince Edward Island wanted to find out how not just humans, but also horses are affected by equine-assisted therapy.

"There is a possibility that the horse would become stressed and anxious if they're working with a human with those emotions," said Laurie McDuffee, a professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown and one of the study's researchers.

"We wanted to make sure that the horse's well-being was in a good state because they're interacting with humans with these emotional states for, you know, many weeks at a time," McDuffee told host Mitch Cormier on Island Morning. 

Horses perceived therapy as 'neutral'

McDuffee collaborated on the study with William Montelpare, a UPEI professor in Applied Human Sciences, and the Serene View Ranch in Stratford, which runs equine therapy programs.

Horse lovers can rest easy. The research showed that the horses involved in the therapy aren't being negatively affected by it.

"The horses perceived the sessions as a neutral stimulus," said McDuffee.

"We didn't see great evidence that they were enjoying the sessions, but neither were they stressed by the sessions."

Veterans showed benefits from therapy

This research, which has not yet been published, was presented Thursday as part of a symposium at Holland College.

It showed that as well as the horses feeling fine, the veterans living with PTSD received a big boost in well-being thanks to the therapy.

For this study, McDuffee and her team wanted to go beyond more common self-reported psychological assessments. They also wanted objective data.

To do this, they measured the heart rate variability of the participants, which can indicate how the sympathetic nervous system is doing.

Serene View Ranch/Facebook
Serene View Ranch/Facebook

They also collected cortisol and oxytocin levels after each hour-long session, through saliva samples, and compared them to base level measurements collected earlier.

"At the end of each session, the cortisol levels in the veterans was significantly decreased compared to baseline," said McDuffee.

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, said McDuffee. The participants' levels of oxytocin — known as the feel-good hormone — were significantly higher after the sessions.

"And the sympathetic nervous system, interestingly, was activated. And so they had some energy by the end of the session," she said.

Hoping to continue research

The veterans' self-reported assessments at the end of the sessions mirrored these results, McDuffee said.

"Their anxiety was decreased, their well-being was increased and their stress was decreased."

McDuffee said doing this type of research is gratifying.

"It takes on a whole new perspective when you can apply your research to the community, and improving well-being for people in your community," she said.

McDuffee and her team are hoping to get more funding to continue this type of research with horses and veterans at other locations across Canada and the U.S.

"We really hope that some of this can change policy to make it easier for [veterans] to access this type of therapy," she said.