LONDON, ONT. -- Dogs are often referred to as man’s best friend, providing mental and emotional support to their owners, but researchers at Brescia University College (BUC) have found another animal ready to saddle up.

An experimental psychologist at BUC, Dr. Anne Barnfield has been researching therapeutic riding and its benefits for mental health and wellness.

“It’s fantastic. I always joke that we should just give everyone a horse in a way, it is incredible to see how well this works out and how much of a benefit can be had from this simple form of interaction.”

Following 12 years of research, Barnfield says therapeutic riding (TR) and equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is similar to work with dogs, but offers additional sets of benefits.

“People have known for centuries that horses are great animals and that it is good to interact with them. It's just in the last 10 years that we started to look at why.”

One benefit is that horses are great communicators and they often help people who have social challenges, learn to communicate better.

“Horses are large animals, you have to interact with it in a different way but at the same time there are benefits from that.”

Those benefits include an increased level of self-esteem and confidence.

To continue to test the findings, Barnfied and two students from Brescia, Andrea Carey and Sarah Murray, teamed up with the SARI Therapeutic Riding camp in London.

SARI is a program that provides specialized support and adaptive riding programs to people with special needs, predominately children.

SARI Therapeutic Riding camp
Inside the stables at the SARI Therapeutic Riding camp near London, Ont. in summer of 2020.

In 2009, the team studied how therapeutic riding impacts children with and without disabilities.

Barnfield concluded that the participants received many benefits including confidence, social skills and positive emotions.

“Someone with autism spectrum disorder, they gain because the horse is intermediary. If they have difficulty in social interactions, it's easier to transfer what they are learning (with a horse) to a human.”

She adds, “A child with attention deficit disorder, the horse is a calming influence. If the child wants to interact with the horse they have to become more calm. For different reasons these equines help different people.”

In 2016, Barnfield conducted a second study at SARI to evaluate how therapeutic riding impacts military veterans who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She and her team evaluated their mental health with therapists before and after the sessions.

‘Basically everything improves, the people are feeling calmer and they’re not as stressed out. Their PTSD symptoms went down.”

Barnfield says she is committed to advancing this research.

“Further research will aid in the understanding of the positive contributions of TR and EAP to both physical and mental health, and thus improve our application of these forms of therapy.”