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Effects of a Form of Equine-Facilitated Learning on Heart Rate Variability, Immune Function, and Self-Esteem in Older Adults

By Ann L. Baldwin, Barbara K. Rector, Ann C. Alden

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Equine-facilitated learning (EFL) helps people access their immediate sensations and feelings because horses, as prey animals, are continually aware of their environment and provide instant feedback to human behaviors and emotions. We hypothesize that during EFL, older people become more aware of their bodily sensations and emotions, leading to increased heart rate variability (HRV), improved self-esteem (Rosenberg scale), and improved immune function. Twenty-four subjects (age > 55) participated in a single 15-minute EFL activity, Con Su Permiso, during which they focused on their bodily sensations and the responses of the horse as they moved toward and around the horse. Subjects served as their own control, interacting with a human. Pre and post measures of HRV were obtained from humans and horses; self-esteem score and immune response (salivary immunoglobulin A, sIgA) from humans. During equine and control interactions, the subject’s HRV (and the horse’s when present) was monitored, while being synchronized with a video recording. An exit interview was conducted after each interaction. Words and gestures relating to feelings and sensations were categorized as positive, neutral, or negative. Human heart and respiration rates as well as HRV (SDRR) increased significantly during interactions with horses and humans compared to baseline (paired t-test, p < 0.05). During equine interactions, human HRV frequency spectrum shifted somewhat to the very low frequency (VLF) range (p < 0.05). The four horses’ HR and HRV responses were varied, but in all cases HRV frequency peaks were predominantly in the VLF range. Human self-esteem increased during interactions with horses and humans (p < 0.05) but sIgA did not change. During exit interviews participants used more positive and fewer negative gestures (p < 0.05) describing the equine experience compared to control; words and gestures were more consistent with each other. These findings mostly support our hypothesis and suggest that engaging with horses benefits humans, indicating an enlivened state without stress.


Christopher C Charles

Purdue University

Date 2018
Publication Title People and Animals: The International Journal of Research and Practice
Volume 1
Issue 1
Pages 17
ISBN/ISSN 2575-9078
Publisher Purdue University
Language English
Additional Language English
  1. Animal-assisted activities
  2. Animal roles
  3. Equine-assisted activities
  4. Equine-assisted learning
  5. Health
  6. Heart rate
  7. Horses
  8. Immune response
  9. immune systems
  10. Mammals
  11. Older adults
  12. self esteem
  13. Stress