Behavioral and Physiological Effects of Equine-assisted Early Intervention for Mother- Child Dyads with Insecure Attachment

Denise V. Hebesberger (1), Andrea Beetz (2), Henri Julius (3), Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg (4),
and Kurt Kotrschal (5) 

(1) Department of Biology, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, United Kingdom
(2) Department for Special Education, University Rostock & Department of Behavioural Biology, University Vienna 
(3) ISER, Department for Special Education, University of Rostock, Rostock, Germany
(4) School of Life Science, University of Skövde, Skövde, Sweden and Department of Animal Environment and Health, Swedish University of Agriculture, Skara, Sweden 
(5) Department of Behavioural Biology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria and Core Facility Konrad Lorenz Research Station for Behaviour and Cognition, University of Vienna, Gruenau im Almtal, Austria 

Animals, including horses may be valuable partners in many activities, pedagogy and therapy. Contact between humans and animals can facilitate an oxytocin secretion that, as a consequence, may alleviates stress-responses, increases social orientation and that supports attachment and caregiving. These mechanisms can be utilized in animal-assisted therapy, for example, to enhance trust between client and therapist and to help increase attachment security in clients with insecure attachment. In this study we compared the effects of an equine-assisted intervention with a conventional play-based intervention for mother-child dyads with insecure attachment, insecure caregiving and child dysregulation. Twenty mother-child dyads (with infants 12-24 months of age), with at least one part of the dyad showing an insecure attachment, were randomly assigned to eight weekly sessions of either equine-assisted or play-based intervention. Effects on mothers’ caregiving behavior and physiology and on the relationship between clients and therapists were assessed via behavior coding, salivary cortisol, heart rate and heart rate variability measures. Mothers and their infants in the equine-assisted intervention had more body contact with each other (p ≤ 0.001), a trend toward more vocal exchange (p = 0.083), and mothers showed a higher sympathetic activation, indicated by a higher heart rate (p = 0.003). In the play-based intervention, mothers showed greater parasympathetic activation than in the horse group, indicated by higher heart rate variability (p = 0.004) as well as enhanced rapport between mothers and the therapist (p = 0.016). We conclude that the main effect of the horse-assisted method was increasing positive arousal by the mother and child doing something exciting together, thus triggering attentiveness towards the child, indicated by higher rates of caregiving behavior, such as proximity and vocal contact. In contrast, the play-based intervention promoted a relaxed environment which allowed the therapists and mothers to engage more with each other. Hence, depending on intervention goals, a combination of equine-assisted and play-based interventions might be an optimal approach.