Horses help in the development of emotionally well-adjusted teenagers, study finds

The study team found that the equine students had fewer emotional and behavioral problems, and their prosocial behavior was about four times better than that of the control group. Photo by Philippe Oursel

Interacting with horses is great for the development of emotionally well-adjusted adolescents, the findings of a new study show.

The differences between adolescents involved with horses and those without such contact were found to be quite profound in some areas.

For their study, Imre Zoltán Pelyva and his fellow researchers focused on a group of healthy students, aged 14–18, without special educational needs or problems.

Those with contact with horses attended 10 agricultural secondary schools in Hungary. They all took part in a four-year equine program. These students had no diagnosed physical or psychological difficulties.

Within the curriculum, they spent two days — 9 to 13 hours each week — with horses. They fed and groomed the horses, cleaned the stable, and worked with the horses on the lunge, from the saddle, and also undertook carriage driving.

Members of the control group comprised students from the same schools who studied non-horse related, agricultural, or food industry vocations, such as gardening, animal husbandry, meat processing or baking.

They did not take part in any activities involving horses.

All the students — there were 525 in all — underwent evaluations at the beginning and at the end of their studies. Central to this was a recognised questionnaire to assess their emotional and behavioral problems and psychic disturbances.

The results between the equine students and the control group were then compared.

The study team, writing in the journal Environmental Research and Public Health, found that the equine students had fewer emotional and behavioral problems, and their prosocial behavior was about four times better than that of the control group.

Prosocial behavior is social behavior that benefits other people or society as a whole, such as helping, sharing, donating, co-operating, and volunteering.

The study team, from the University of Pécs and the University of Szeged in Hungary, characterized the differences as remarkable.

“Our results indicate that students of equine-related vocations are more helpful and empathetic, and have fewer behavior problems than those studying other vocations.

Equine students were assessed as having fewer behavior problems upon admission to their school (all of them had regular contact with horses before). However, impressively, the rate of decline in these problems was found to be more significant than in the other group.

The study team, discussing their findings, said the findings that favorable characteristics were already present at the admission of equine students to the institutions might suggest that adolescents with stronger social skills are attracted to horses.

“On the other hand, the fact that the decline of behavior problems is more remarkable in the equine group than in the control group suggests that equine-assisted activities might play a role in strengthening these skills.”

Their analysis showed that equine-related activities were a significant factor leading to these favorable behavior traits.

“It is important to mention that these beneficial effects of equine-assisted activities are mostly based on the students’ understanding of and susceptibility to equine communication.

“The mere presence of a horse is less likely to be effective if the equine professional present does not give meaning to the horse’s behavior.

“Students have to learn to treat the horses as subjects and not as objects in order to get involved and become receptive to positive influence within the interaction.

“At the same time, this knowledge (that is, understanding equine communication and behavior) is also essential just to be able to work safely and effectively with these animals.

“This means that no therapeutic goals are needed to teach students to pay attention to and respect horses — it is the basis of all equine interactions in professional environments.”

That, they said, is why the standard school environments, without any therapeutic element, could produce such results.

“We strongly believe that the relationship humans build with horses shows them a way to build trust, acceptance, and understanding toward humans, as well.

“Our results suggest that young people who learn to listen to and take care of the horse can transfer this knowledge to intraspecies communication and behavior, as well.

“Equine students’ prosocial behavior is four times better than that of non-equine students. This result is remarkable and supports the idea that being around horses improves students’ social competences.”

Adolescence, they said, is a difficult period in life. They have to cope with many difficulties during these years.

“They need help to understand and find their place in the world, or to just generally get around successfully. The lucky ones get enough support from their family and friends, others — a very limited number — get professional help with more serious problems.

“Our study showed that with a little care and attention, normal school programs can improve competencies that are useful in life.

“If horses can be used to help adolescents and there are schools with horses and adolescents, why not exploit the possibility? With a little investment, gains might be great.”

The results indicate that equine-assisted activities have a protective effect on the behavior of adolescents, they said.

“These results also show that equine vocational schools or programs have — to the best of our knowledge — so far unidentified potential to help adolescents with behavior problems, or possibly to prevent their development.

The full study team comprised Pelyva, Etelka Szovák and Ákos Levente Tóth, all with the University of Pécs; and Réka Kresák, with the University of Szeged.

Pelyva, I.Z.; Kresák, R.; Szovák, E.; Tóth, Á.L. How Equine-Assisted Activities Affect the Prosocial Behavior of Adolescents. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, 2967.

Horses help in the development of emotionally well-adjusted teenagers, study finds

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