Randomized Trial Examines Effects of Equine Facilitated Learning on Adolescents’ Basal Cortisol Levels

Patricia Pendry, Ph D., Annelise N. Smith, and Stephanie M. Roeter
Department of Human Development, Washington State University

Although equine facilitated programs have gained in popularity over the last decade, virtually nothing is known about the causal effects of equine facilitated interventions on human development and well-being. Researchers conducted a randomized trial to determine the effects of an 11-week equine facilitated learning program on the activity of the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis of fifth through eighth graders through salivary cortisol levels. Children (N = 131) referred by school counselors and recruited from the community were randomly assigned to either an experimental (N = 53) or waitlisted condition (N = 60). Six samples of salivary cortisol were collected in participants’ own home over two consecutive days at pretest, and another set of six samples were collected at posttest in both groups of children. Children in the experimental group who participated in a series of once-weekly, 90-minute sessions of equine facilitated activities had lower afternoon cortisol levels (F(1, 112) = 8.56, p = .017; d = .48) and lower total cortisol concentration per waking hour (F(1, 112) = 11.12 , p = .017, d = .46) at posttest, compared to waitlisted children. Multivariate regression analyses showed that program effects were independent from baseline levels of child cortisol, child gender, age, and referral status.