Prof. Cindy Adams

Getting back in the saddle may be a potent tool for trauma recovery

The bond between horseback riders and their animals may be strong enough to help people recover from extreme fear and anxiety, say OVC researchers. And understanding the significance of the alliance between horse and rider may eventually provide some help for horses in recovery as well.

Prof. Cindy Adams, department of Population Medicine, is working with graduate student Janet Yorke to examine the "therapeutic alliance" of the human-equine bond. They think this attachment may help alleviate the suffering of people who have been through traumatic physiological or psychological stress.

"We know that fear and anxiety can be transferred to other aspects of a person's life, such as riding," says Yorke. "I think people could really be reached through the use of horses in therapy."

The researchers are focusing on men and women, but a recent finding by the Canadian Equestrian Federation showed that women comprise the largest growing segment of the companion horse owner population. In fact, 75 per cent of new horse owners are women, most of them baby boomers.

Adams and Yorke are interviewing 50 riders who say horseback riding influenced their recovery from traumatic situations such as car accidents, illness, or physical or sexual-abuse. They will look at what experiences interviewees identify as traumatic and how their relationship with a horse helped or didn't help them cope.

They hope to find out if "getting back in the saddle" affects the emotional and psychological recovery of riders experiencing post-traumatic stress.

Questions for the survey will be developed in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of professionals from sociology, psychology, veterinary and epidemiology backgrounds. The researchers will identify themes and patterns through standardized data analysis. They hope this will lead to more quantitative investigation, such as video-taping riders through their recovery period, and researching the demographics of respondents.

Yorke says the research will measure the effects of the therapeutic alliance according to the amount of time a rider spends with a horse and the nature of their riding.

"The intensity and proximity of the relationship before and after a traumatic situation are very important factors," says Yorke. "There's a difference between performance riders and those who ride more casually for pleasure."

Yorke has more than 30 years of social work experience and has volunteered for a therapeutic riding program for children with physical disabilities. She observed physiological and emotional benefits such as improved fine and gross motor skills and reduced tension in the program's participants.

"I hope people will have a better understanding of the therapeutic value of riding as a result of this research," she says.

For more information or to pledge your support for this study contact the Equine Research Centre (519) 837-0061 or email

- Katie Meyer, SPARK

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Updated: October 2005.