Heartrate and heartratevariability
2018 we started a bigger research project. Cooperating with the University of Vienna, the Unit of Comparative Medicine of the Messerli Research Institute of the Veterinary University of Vienna and the Sigmund Freud University of Vienna we started a scientific approach to the health-promoting aspect of equine-assisted therapy. The title is „Because they feel your heartbeat! Heart rate (variability) and cortisol distribution as a sign of synchronisation within horse assisted therapy based on body language.”.
As part of the research project, we looked at the stress-reducing effects of horses and measured the heartbeat and heart rate variability (HRV) as well as the cortisol in the saliva of the therapist, client and therapy horse.
We also wanted to look at the synchronization between the three interaction partners. Is there a synchronization in the physiological parameters? Studies in mother-infant interaction research have already demonstrated the effect of coordinated heartbeats. But are there hearts beating in the same rhythm in equine-assisted therapy sessions?
It was an intensive data collection period with an ingenious research team and super hardworking study participants, who were not submissive to minus degrees, unpredictable technical challenges and hours to days of commitment almost around the clock. On the contrary! The motivation and enthusiasm to discover new secrets of horse therapy was enormous. And the effort paid off, as the results analysis showed:
On the one hand, we were able to show that the integration of horses into the therapeutic setting had a stress-reducing effect on clients. We measured cortisol, heart rate and HRV before and after the therapy session. And we also had a control condition in which there was no horse at the therapy session, only the wooden barrel horse. After contact with the horse (in contrast to before) and in the experimental condition with therapy horse (in contrast to the barrel horse), the cortisol and the heart rate were lower and the HRV increased. High values in the HRV indicate a high level of well-being and low values in the cortisol and the heart rate indicate relaxation. Therapy horses have a positive influence on the stress experience and relaxation.
On the other hand, we looked at the synchronization of the heartbeats and found that there was actually coordination between the therapy horse, client and therapist. The heartbeats adapt to each other and, interestingly, the adjustment is greater if there has been a relationship between human and horse before and the therapy horse was not foreign or unknown.
We have already been able to present the results at many conferences, e.g. in Dublin, Budapest, New York and Singen, and we found great approval in the horse therapist community. Most of us already experienced horses in our daily practice having a positive effect on well-being and helping to reduce stress and experiencing relaxation. Most people are also aware that relationship is a very essential factor in a therapeutic setting. And yet, it is important to advance research in this area so that the knowledge that parents, therapy children, therapists, experts etc. experience in their daily work is also scientifically presented in order to achieve greater acceptance of horse-assisted therapy.
We are VERY happy to exchange information on this and other research projects and would like to encourage everyone to do something themselves!
The first publication on our research project can be found at http://www.uco.es/ucopress/ojs/index.php/pet/article/view/11801. Another article with the meaning of the results for practice as well as further research ideas and a lot of literary background is currently being worked on.
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