Therapy horses.

It can be a tough, but noble job.

The equine assisted therapy horse might experience stress during his work—but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be doing the work, according to Canadian scientists. Still, a few tweaks in therapy programs—in particular in the mounting sessions—could make the lives of therapy horses a bit easier, they said.

“The stress experienced by therapeutic riding horses in our study isn’t a ‘problem’ exactly, as stress is technically a normal physiological response and a certain level of stress is healthy and normal,” said Larissa Carr, BSc Hons., veterinary student at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Canada.

“However, our research indicated activities which were linked to these changes in stress—namely, mounting and dismounting—and if these activities were modified, the welfare of these therapeutic riding horses could be improved,” Carr said.

In their study, Carr and her fellow researchers tested four horses used in an eight-week equine assisted therapy session with disabled riders (having diagnosed developmental, physical, cognitive, and/or psychosocial disabilities).

They monitored physiological stress responses in the horses, like heart rate variability and salivary cortisol, and they observed behavioural signs of stress before, during, and after the riding sessions.

The researchers also tested the horses undergoing similar sessions while ridden by an experienced, able-bodied rider.

Carr presented her results during the 15th Conference for the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

The researchers found that, compared to baseline (standing in the stall), the horses showed considerable increases in stress responses during the mounting session, Carr said. And that was true whether the horse was being ridden by an able-bodied or a disabled rider.

“There was a slight increase in stress during the therapy sessions, but the differences weren’t significant,” she told Horses and People.

The increased stress during mounting and dismounting might be related to the system used for mounting and dismounting in that therapy program, Carr explained. “The rider is elevated above the horse, and the horse is confined to a small area surrounded by four to five side walkers along with a leader who holds the lead rope,” she said.

“The horse is also surrounded by blocks used to direct their legs and keep them from walking away from the ramp, in order to maintain the safety of the rider. This setup could have led to the changes in heart rate variability and salivary cortisol, as well as the higher number of behavioural indicators of stress displayed by the horses during mounting and dismounting.”

In fact, the horses seemed to get stressed “from the moment they knew they had to approach the ramp,” said Carr. “Program leaders could possibly revisit other options instead of using a mounting ramp, or decrease the number of people restraining the horse, while still ensuring the safety of the rider.”

Even so, Carr cautioned that her study population was small—only four horses—and that it’s possible that other therapy horses might react to therapy work differently. “Our results can’t be generalized to all therapeutic riding horses,” she said.