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Positive Connections: Meet Dr. Patricia Pendry

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Dr. Patricia Pendry is a developmental psychologist and graduate faculty member in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University. Her research focuses on exposure to stress in childhood and the development of childhood behavioral problems. She is especially interested in designing and evaluating animal assisted programs that reduce stress and prevent the development of adjustment problems. In her latest study, the PATH to Success, Dr. Pendry and her team explored the powerful interactions between children and horses by observing if stress could be affected through participation in an 11-week equine facilitated learning program.

Dr. Pendry took some time out of her busy schedule to share with us more about her interest in equine studies and the human-animal bond.

Why Study Horse Interactions?

horse.jpg Dr. Pendry’s psychological interests in child stress in the home led her to become involved in the human-animal bond field. Her research looks at methods of alleviating childhood stress both in school and family environments. The roles animals can play in alleviating stress became a question that led Dr. Pendry to observe human-animal interactions, particularly between humans and horses. Her PATH to Success program was a two-year study that examined the effects of an 11-week long program which utilized a series of equine facilitated activities to reduce stress and promote emotional growth and learning. Dr. Pendry approached the designers of the program, Sue Jacobson and Phyllis Erdman, in the Fall of 2009, and proposed to measure stress levels through salivary cortisol gathered from the adolescent participants before, during, and after the 11-week program.

Interest in human-animal interactions has quickly grown in the past five years with respected international research organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) inviting grant proposals for research within the HAI field. Dr. Pendry is encouraged by the attention being given to this emerging field. Her study was funded through a collaborative grant from WALTHAM and NICHD (a subsidiary of the NIH) which is specifically dedicated to human-animal interaction and child development research.

Her focus on horse-human interactions stems from her own personal background. As a child, Dr. Pendry rode horses and personally recalled feeling relaxed in their presence. She was also exposed to therapeutic riding and other horse-related therapies in the barn where she took lessons. She became interested in the idea of therapeutic effects of horseback riding and the meaningful interactions that are experienced between a horse and his rider. Those interactions lead to a powerful bond that Dr. Pendry believes to be a partnership that that can alleviate stress. She noted how there is a large body of research looking at the human-canine bond, and felt that the human-equine bond may foster similarly meaningful interactions that warrant further exploration and observation.

Measuring Stress

Stress is challenging to measure and define as it seems to vary among individuals in terms of perception and response. The PATH to Success program took a bio-behavioral approach to studying effects of the human-equine interaction by measuring changes in basal stress levels of participants. Through observation, short interviews and child and parent surveys, as well as countless salivary cortisol samples at various time-points, the study collected a wealth of data that reflected an alleviation of stress among the children as they interacted with horses in various activities. horse2.jpg

Dr. Pendry and her team believe that an equine approach is effective because horses serve as a gateway to recognizing the stressed behavior. Horses are animals that require you to be immediately aware of your surroundings, and serve as a reflection of the child’s behavior and emotional intent. Horses offer immediate feedback and react to the person they are interacting with. This reflection of behavior, thought and emotion encourages the child to be more self-aware as well as socially aware as they partner with a horse to complete a task. Dr. Pendry discussed how interactions with horses require patience, confidence, compassion and teamwork, which lead the child to experience success. The child also achieves a level of relaxation, feelings of support and having awareness outside of their self.

Equine Facilitated Learning

horse1.jpg Horses are large animals and demand your attention when you are in close proximity with them. Dr. Pendry shared how human-horse interactions are based on a mutual trust. The children had to develop trust toward the horse, while being trusted by the horse in return. The children and horses react to each other and pick up cues based on the other’s response. It is a mutual building of trust that influences the interaction between the horse and child. Furthermore, there are noted physical benefits in touching, petting and grooming the horse. These are behaviors that can be seen as stress relievers and encourage relaxation. Within their study, Dr. Pendry observed that cortisol levels were reduced in response to horse-human interaction, which appeared to induce positive emotions, such as feeling relaxed, and reduce negative emotions, such as feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

PATH to Success showed great results with a large set of collected data. Dr. Pendry found significant positive effects on children’s social competence through participation in equine interactions. From a data standpoint, the participants recorded lower cortisol levels, which is directly related to the stress level of an individual. Dr. Pendry shared that her study was the first clinical trial –where participants were randomly assigned to conditions – that effectively reported lowering adolescents’ basal cortisol levels. She shared how the most rewarding part of her experience was being granted the opportunity to spend her days at the stable watching the positive interactions between the participants and the horses.

When asked about what she was surprised most about in her study Dr. Pendry shared that she was surprised at the clear, strong results that reflected the positive effects of human-equine interactions. The study held a strong theoretical foundation, but Dr. Pendry still was surprised at how powerful the interactions appeared to be. It is also worth noting that each response is unique and that natural organic responses can flourish outside of the organized activity.

Looking Forward

horse3.jpg In the future, Dr. Pendry hopes to replicate the controlled study, as well as examine which components of the program appeared to be most important in causing the treatment effects. She recognizes that a lot of the observed interactions that occurred outside of the controlled activity may have been meaningful as well, and would like to better understand their role. She was fascinated to watch the natural, organic responses the children displayed in their interactions with the horses and how they naturally established an interactive dynamic.

She wants to look at what specific components in the study were responsible for the lowered stress; was it the facilitated activities, grooming, or horses themselves? She plans to monitor more closely the moment-to-moment experience during the interactions and hopefully find links to the child’s feelings and level of relaxation throughout the activity.

Dr. Pendry is encouraged at the direction of the HAB discipline right now and believes the field is at a nexus where interest and expertise is growing rapidly. She sees a need to continue to develop methodologically-tested work through controlled studies that establish a legitimacy to the field. There is still more work to be done, but Dr. Pendry believes that step by step the human-animal bond field is shedding the myth that it is a fluffy field of research, and instead emerging as a field that holds relevant and valuable research.

If interested in learning more about Dr. Pendry and her work with PATH to Success you can visit her webpage or email her at ppendry@wsu.edu

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