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Apr 25, 2014 07:37 AM EDT

Horses Reduce Stress Levels in Youth: Study

Horses can significantly lower stress hormones in youth, according to a Washington State University Spokane study. The finding supports the claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals who have received positive feedback regarding these programs from patients.

Researchers said that healthy stress hormone production in young adolescents prevents the development of physical and mental health problems.

For the study, around 130 students in grades 5-8 spent time with horses in an after-school program for over 12 weeks. Participants were randomly assigned to the program or waitlisted. During the program of 90 minutes weekly, children learnt about horse behavior, care, grooming, handling, riding and interaction among other things.

The participant's saliva samples were collected before and after the equine facilitated learning program in Pullman, Wash. The researchers compared the levels and patterns of stress hormone functioning by measuring cortisol levels.

"We found that children who had participated in the 12-week program had significantly lower stress hormone levels throughout the day and in the afternoon, compared to children in the waitlisted group," Patricia Pendry, a developmental psychologist said in astatement. "We get excited about that because we know that higher base levels of cortisol - particularly in the afternoon - are considered a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology."

Pendry hopes that the findings will lead to effective after-school programs.

The finding is published in the journal Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin.

Previous studies showed evidence of beneficial effects of human-animal interaction programs involving horses, dogs, cats and other companion animals with improving social competence, self-esteem and behaviour in children. Plus, their unconditional love helps reduce tension, improve mood and fight depression.

Teri Wright, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Santa Ana, Calif., said that while interacting with pets, people need not fear "hurting their feelings or getting advice you don't want," Webmed reports.

Ian Cook, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA said that apart from helping people to cope with depression and stress, pets also help them maintain a fit body and improve social interaction through morning and evening walks or visits to the clinics.

Dog owners in past studies reported decreased blood pressure levels and increased levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain. In a study involving Chinese women, the researchers discovered that dog owners exercised frequently, had good night sleep, and recorded enhanced fitness levels and fewer sick days.

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