A pioneering study at the University of Kentucky suggests humans have a lot to learn from horses.
Horses can help people develop empathy and enhance social and leadership skills, according to a recently-completed study of equine-assisted learning among 21 nurses at UK Chandler Hospital.
The two-year study was conducted by researchers with UK's College of Agriculture and UK's Center for Leadership Development.
Janine Lindgreen, a clinical nursing specialist and co-investigator in the study, said spending time with horses at Lexington's Pine Knoll Farm was an eye-opener for those who took part.
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"They realized by working with these horses that their behavior and their unit culture effects ... their patients, their families and their co-workers," Lindgreen said.
The group immediately identified the importance of self-awareness and non-verbal communication, researchers said.
During the equine-assisted learning sessions, participants engaged in non-mounted activities with horses. For example, in one exercise two teams of participants attempted to get a horse to join their team and follow them around willingly without speaking to one another and without touching the horse.
Lindgreen said the group of nurses subsequently formed a group and made several changes to their working environment as a direct result of what they learned in their sessions with horses.
"The first and the biggest change that they decided they needed to make was changing their own attitude and their own unit culture," Lindgreen said. "They realized that the unit culture wasn't always therapeutic for the patients or the families."
The study's project manager, Lissa Pohl, said there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that working with horses improves people, but there isn't much research to prove equine interaction assists people with learning.
The small number of participants in the UK study makes it impossible to draw firm conclusions, but the encouraging initial results will make future research easier, Pohl said.
"If horses can increase our ability to understand ourselves and others better, then the healthcare industry is a perfect place for studies like these," she said. "When nurses and doctors benefit from collaborating with horses then ultimately their patients also benefit."
It took Pohl and her colleagues 10 months to raise the $4,500 needed to complete the research.
"Hopefully if we go ahead and do more research in this area it will be a little bit easier to get funding because we already have a track record," Pohl said.
At Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, which provides horse-assisted therapy to children and adults with physical and emotional needs, the outcome of the study was no surprise, said program director Denise Spittler.
"We see it every day," she said.
Spittler said she hopes the study will help legitimize the use of equine interaction for teaching life skills and for administering therapy, which is known as hippotherapy.
"I thank the staff and faculty over at UK for what they're doing," Spittler said. "We look forward to — all of us in this industry — doing more studies to have scientific, research based-evidence that this really works."