A Grantmaker Asks How Working With Horses Can Impact Human Health

Animals have been used in various forms of therapy for decades. Freud himself was a dog lover, and would often have his Chow Chow named Jofi sit in on his psychotherapy sessions to put his patients at ease. He found the positive effect was most pronounced in adolescents and children. 

The concept has not always been taken completely seriously by the therapy community, but today therapy animals are widely used, with horses in particular becoming increasingly popular

But even as there are hundreds of centers worldwide providing equine-assisted therapy, there’s a need for more data quantifying its effects. To address this challenge, the Horses & Human Research Foundation makes regular research grants to advance knowledge on the potential impact horses can have on human health and wellness.

The foundation recently released an RFP for its Innovative Research Grant program, which will award up to $10,000 for basic or clinical research on the topic that takes a unique angle that might open up new lines of study.

HHRF has been around since 2004, founded by Molly Sweeney, who has worked with horses throughout her life and worked in equine-assisted therapy since 1990. Sweeney is currently the vice president of the foundation, but she’s now one of a nine-person board of directors and a 27-person scientific advisory council that oversee grants. Like a lot of animal-related funders, HHRF is fueled mostly by donations instead of a philanthropic endowment, although it was seeded by an anonymous matching gift at first. In 2015, 80 percent of its income came from individual donors, with expenditures of $222,000. 

To date, the foundation has backed 11 research projects with more than $400,000, yielding a handful of published papers along the way. One recent grant, for example, is sending $88,000 to a research team at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, to study the effects of equine-assisted therapy on stress levels in young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Young people with ASD often have difficulty in social situations or are lacking coping mechanisms, and the study will monitor various biological signs of stress in both patients and horses to measure any benefits. 

While horses are often used in therapy with young people, another big focus of the foundation is veterans and other suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, including a study at Baylor that recently wrapped up. The organization also recently kicked off something called Focused Research Initiatives, which zone in on specific areas of interest, and the first one is devoted to veterans with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress.

You can check out more about equine-assisted therapy and HHRF here.