HEALTH / WELL-BEING

Measuring the psychophysiological changes in combat Veterans participating in an equine therapy program

Article

This article examines the impact on the mental health of veterans participating in equine therapy.

Abstract

This study addressed the following research questions: (1) Does horsemanship training with Veterans lead to a balance in the autonomic nervous system? and (2) Does horsemanship training with Veterans lead to a self-perceived improvement in quality of life? A total of 17 participants in 3 different cohorts participated weekly in an 8-week equine therapy experience designed to address and heal combat Veterans suffering from anxiety and other symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study took place in San Diego County, California, where the Veterans worked with seasoned therapy horses and experienced riding instructors. The effectiveness of this program was quantitatively evaluated by measuring heart rate variability (HRV), and scores on the positive and negative affect schedule (PANAS). HRV was measured before, during, and after each session to determine the impact on the autonomic nervous system. The PANAS was administered before and after each session to determine self-perceived improvement in quality of life. Results: Analysis of the HRV results revealed a weekly improvement in HRV patterns at each measurement stage. The average low frequency/high frequency (LF/HF) ratio of study participants significantly decreased by 20.6% (F=9.84, p<0.001). Poincaré plots of the participant's R-R values further demonstrated improved HRV. The average positive affect score on the PANAS significantly increased by 14.4% (t=5.78, p<0.001) with Veterans reporting they felt less anxiety and stress. This study provided evidence-based results that therapeutic horsemanship programs may bring psychophysiological benefits to Veterans suffering from trauma, stress and anxiety associated with PTSD.

Full Reference

Gehrke, E. K., Noquez, A. E., Ranke, P. L. and Myers, M. P., 2018. Measuring the psychophysiological changes in combat Veterans participating in an equine therapy program. Journal of Military, Veteran and Family Health, 4(1).