It used to be that animal-assisted therapy could be grouped into one general therapeutic outcome, demonstrating reductions in violent behavior, anxiety and depression, as well as improvements in self care, body image and overall self esteem (particularly in the case of eating disorders), however, a recent study shows some different results.
As reported in Medscape News, a pilot study of more than 100 inpatients presented here at the American Psychiatric Association 2011 Annual Meeting showed that those randomized to undergo weekly group therapy sessions that integrated horse-related tasks had significantly fewer violent incidents during the next 3 months compared with those who underwent canine-assisted therapy or standard-of-care treatment.
While this was the first study of equine-assisted therapy conducted in a hospital setting, what was “really interesting” according to investigator, Dr. Steven Schleifer, was that the other groups (canine-therapy and traditional therapy) actually did a little worse post-intervention vs. pre-intervention.
Here are the details from the study:
‘Dramatic’ Functional Improvement
For the study, 104 inpatients (38% female; 37% black or Hispanic; mean age, 44.8 years) from Greystone, a long-term psychiatric hospital (mean days of hospitalization, 1695), were enrolled last spring. They were then randomized to receive 10 sessions of weekly equine-facilitated therapy (EFT, n = 32), canine-facilitated therapy (CFT, n = 27), their standard psychosocial therapy (n = 18), or enhanced psychosocial therapy (ET, n = 27).
All patients were clinically identified as at risk for violence/aggression (n = 65) or were highly regressed or isolated (n = 39). In addition, 61% had affective or schizophrenic disorders.
EFT involved 1 horse per 3- to 4-person group and included horse-related tasks that mostly needed to be accomplished as a team, such as grooming or putting on a saddle. CFT involved 2 dogs meeting with 10 patients at a time in a specialized room and included more 1-on-1 interactions. Both EFT and CFT used Delta-certified therapy animals and handlers in addition to therapists from Greystone.
The ET control group met in a building outside the patients’ usual hospital gathering place to ensure that the effects found for EFT or CFT were not due to just a change in environment.
At intake and 3-month follow-up, psychological, behavioral, and functional measures were conducted and compared.
Results showed that only the patients in the EFT group reduced their violence-related incidents during the 3 months after the start of the intervention vs the 3 months preceding study enrollment ( P < .05).
“Staff-assessed Overt Aggression Scale assessment of assault against others ( P < .05) revealed similar EFT-related changes over 3 months,” report the researchers.
There were no between-group differences for nonviolent incidents.
Both the patients with affective (vs schizophrenic) disorders and males showed greater incident reductions ( P < .04).
In addition, “clinical observations identified dramatic functional improvement with EFT in some highly regressed and violent patients,” write the study authors.
While the investigators speculate that the drop in violent behavior in the equine group may be related to the fact that the group had to work together with the horse, as oppose to the canine group in which each person was paired with his/her own dog, it is also safe to speculate that the equine group may have shown different results for a couple of other reasons.
First off, horses are larger than humans, and regardless of how violent a person has been, being around a horse will reduce him/her back to a state of fear. This experience may provide a violent person for some perspective as to the feeling of the recipients of his/her violence.
Secondly, a horse is a prey animal, meaning that it is used to being preyed on, and therefore is quite fearful by nature, whereas a dog is naturally a predatory animal, and not as fearful by nature. A horse then will typically be much more sensitive to violence or anger in a person that a dog (with the exception of dogs who have been abused), and for that reason, the violent or angry behavior of a person will be more obvious to him/her in the presence of a horse than when working with a dog.
Regardless of the reason for the study’s outcome, this is an exciting step for equine therapy, and the researchers who conducted this research are hoping to offer a workshop on their findings as well as promote similar programs in other hospital settings.
Horse and dog photo available from Shutterstock