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University researcher delves into horse/human relationship

Equine assisted therapy - Horses at Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch will be used in trials for new research by the University of Guelph’s Dr. Katrina Merkies, who’s looking at horse/human interactions. Nikki Duffield, left, is the Sunrise program director and head instructor. Instructor Tiff Nelson, right, gave Starbuck Scout, a therapy horse to be used in the trial, one-on-one time on April 12.  photo by Jaime Myslik

University researcher delves into horse/human relationship

by Jaime Myslik

PUSLINCH - Many horse people believe their horse understands them on an emotional level and offers comfort.

However, there is very little scientific research that actually backs up that belief.

That’s where University of Guelph researcher Dr. Katrina Merkies comes in.

“My research focuses on horse/human interaction ... more working on the ground and working around horses and how horses respond to different movements, different ways that humans work and approach horses,” said Merkies.

“The logical field to look at that is in equine-assisted activities, whether it’s therapy or just learning activities of some sort. I guess it all sort of does come back to how horses and humans interact and looking with an eye to the welfare of the horse.”

Merkies is in the process of conducting base level research to look more closely at the human/horse interaction. With a $10,000 innovation research grant from the Ohio-based Horses and Humans Research Foundation, Merkies and her team are using 20 horses from Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre in Puslinch for the trial.

“We feel like any opportunity to be involved in research in therapeutic riding or in people working with horses is a good thing because there just isn’t enough research,” said Sunrise program direction and head instructor Nikki Duffield.

“We discussed it with our board ... and we decided that we wanted to be involved in research about this topic.”

Merkies said her research is important for the welfare of both horses and their human therapy partners.

“Essentially we’re putting the horse in the role of a psychiatrist and as you can imagine psychiatrists dealing with people with mental trauma, day after day after day. That’s really stressful,” she said.

“That’s a stressful job for them to do and so if we’re putting the horse in that role does the horse experience that same kind of stress? From my perspective you know horses tell us things all the time, we just don’t pick up on them.”

Beginning in May, four people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a control group of four people without PTSD but mimicking the actions of those with the disorder will spend two minutes with each of the trial’s 20 horses.

Merkies’ basic research question is whether horses can distinguish between humans who have mental trauma and those who don’t.


“The volunteer humans with PTSD, they will be entering a round pen with the horse, just one horse and just themselves, one at a time and they will just be in the round pen with the horse,” Merkies explained.

“The horse will be loose to move around as it chooses. They are not to interact with the horse ... but if the horse comes over to them and touches them that’s fine.”

The horse/human interaction will be recorded so movement and body language of the horse can be studied.

“How the humans will act in that situation we don’t know obviously,” Merkies said.

“But some of the sort of typical things that humans with PTSD might show (include) disinterest, (they) might yell, they might be nervous or jittery, they might make sudden movements.”

She said it’s important to note the humans are not being observed; it’s the horse and its reactions that are being studied.

After the trials with people who have PTSD are complete, another four people from the control group will spend the same amount of time with the horses.

“We are trying to mirror everything exactly the same so we have the humans with PTSD and they will be matched with a person who looks similar to them, they’ll be wearing a riding helmet when they’re in the round pen so they’ll even look more similar because you won’t really see the facial distinctions and if they can move in the same way as the PTSD participant then essentially everything is the same,” she said.

“The only (thing) that would be different is that [one] person has PTSD and some kind of emotional trauma and [the other] doesn’t.

She added, “If the horse responds differently to those two people then we can perhaps surmise that the horse is responding differently because of the emotional aspect of that human, not the physical aspect.”

Merkies and her team will look at both the behavioural and physiological parameters of the horse’s reactions.

They’ll record each horse’s heart rate and cortisol (stress hormone) levels to measure their level of stress. They’ll also observe how close the horse gets to the human, the horse’s orientation to the human, the horse’s head position, and other types of stress behaviours.

Duffield said Sunrise will likely implement some changes to its program based on the outcomes of Merkies’ research.

“In our day-to-day lives we see that the horses qualitatively, in our opinion, respond differently to people with special needs than they do to the average person,” said Duffield.

“We’re hoping that the research will show that it’s not stressful for them and that they enjoy it because we see that all the time.

“So I guess we’ll see what comes out of it and then we’ll have to see how it impacts things.”

While there is a plethora of research on how equine-assisted therapy impacts humans,  there is very little on how it impacts horses. Moving forward Merkies said there are two things that will hopefully come out of her broader research.

The first is looking at the welfare of the horse.

“Is the horse actually enjoying this job? When can we tell when it has had enough on a particular day?” she said.

The second is to look at human safety.

“Again, if the horse is stressed by a certain situation are we putting human safety at risk and how can we ameliorate that?” she asked.

Duffield said Sunrise has measures in place to help its horses deal with the “day-to-day grind and stress.”

Each horse is asked to work a maximum of two hours per day, she said, and they rarely reach that threshold. The centre also takes advantage of the extensive network of trails on the farm property.

“Most of [the horses] really enjoy that so that’s kind of a stress reliever,” said Duffield.

The staff work with each of the horses individually at least once a week, whether it be riding, lounging or anything else the horse needs.

“Just having someone ride them in a way that maybe is different than what they do in the ring every day,” Duffield said. “It’s a physical break and a brain break and it helps keep them in shape for the work that they do.”    

For therapy horses it’s important they be in shape so they’re able to manage a rider that may have poor balance or other needs.

“If you have a horse that’s in pain or has a sore back or is not sound then you’re going to run into problems, so we try to keep them healthy as much as possible so that they can do their job properly,” she said.

“So we care for them so that they can care for the riders.”

In her future research, Merkies hopes to look at how personalities affect horse/human interactions (both horse and human personalities).

However, for that to begin  she needs her base level trials completed at Sunrise.

The trials will occur in May and over the summer months when there are no Sunrise riders using the horses.

Those interested in participating in the study as a person with PTSD or as part of the control group can contact Merkies at

April 22, 2016


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