Veterinary school to study therapeutic riding for military veterans

The study will be the first to document the effects of therapeutic riding in detail.

A new MU study will focus on the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on veterans.

The study will be funded by a $50,000 grant from the Horses and Humans Research Foundation (HHRF) awarded to the MU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI).

HHRF aims to advance knowledge of horses and their potential impact on the health and wellness of people, especially through therapy, according to its website.

With the money from this grant, ReCHAI will examine the effects of six weeks of therapeutic horseback riding on 40 U.S. military veterans who either suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, according to a news release.

Rebecca Johnson, director of ReCHAI and professor of veterinary medicine, said the study would engage the veterans in two main aspects of therapy.

“There’s interacting with horse on ground — brushing the horse and all that,” Johnson said. “Then there’s also riding the horses in our regular curriculum and riding activities.”

Johnson said the effects would be measured in perceived health of the veterans after therapy.

“We’re measuring, in the veterans, mood regulation and social interaction, family adjustments and physical activity,” Johnson said.

The program, set to begin in May, is a collaboration between team members from the MU School of Nursing, MU School of Social Work, MU School of Psychology and MU College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as graduate students studying social work, psychology and public health.

The project is currently seeking approval through the Campus Institutional Review Board and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. There will be two stable sites, one in St. Louis and one in Columbia.

“We can recruit a broader area than just Columbia,” Johnson said. “Veterans served by the VA Hospital often come long distances, so it would be nice for them to be able to go to a riding stable nearer to their home.”

Johnson said inspiration for the study came from the idea that there are many therapeutic riding programs focused at various populations, including veterans, but none are research based.

“There has not been a systematic study on the outcomes or effects,” Johnson said. “Because we are a research center, we felt like we ought to be studying the outcomes.”

One of the collaborators is David Albright, director of the Center for Education and Research for Veterans and Military Families and assistant professor in the School of Social Work.

“Social work expertise contributes to the TORCH study by helping to inform how animal interaction might improve veterans' ability to engage within their families and communities,” Albright said in an email.

Albright said social workers are uniquely trained to help restore or enhance veterans' capacity for psychosocial functioning.

The study will last six weeks rather than operating as an ongoing program. Albright said some veterans attribute wellbeing and successful readjustment after deployment to animals as well as other emotional and social supports.

“Once we find out the results, we'll know better how to tailor rider intervention to achieve the best outcomes,” Johnson said. “We can guide riding programs around the countries on how best to serve veterans.”

Albright is grateful for the service opportunity the study provides.

“I'm thankful to be working with a great team under the leadership of Dr. Johnson while having the opportunity to serve our men and women who have worn our country's uniform,” Albright said.

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