Researchers at Case Western Reserve University using saliva to see how humans benefit from therapy animals

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Posted at 7:15 AM, Apr 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-01 11:57:51-04

CLEVELAND — Case Western Reserve is researching how effective therapy animals really are by testing saliva of children and adults who use animals as therapy.

Carson Fry's journey around a horse pen is roughly ten years in the making.

He has a metabolic disease that prevents his body from processing proteins, making it a challenge to move around.

Carson rides his therapy horse around a pen at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center.

"He started physical therapy when he was super little," said Carson's mother, Melissa. "Like as a baby."

When he was just four, Carson started physical therapy with horses, but he's hardly the only one who benefits.

Carson cares for one of the horses after riding at Fieldstone Farm.

"This is a service and a help that affects our entire family," said Melissa.

Carson's therapy helps him get around, but other therapy animals around the facility where he trains have helped Melissa and her other children, too.

Signs at Fieldstone Farm tell visitors about the personality of each horse.

Why, or how much, those animals help is still largely a mystery to the scientific community.

"There really is this gray are of not quite understanding 'Why does this matter'," said Case Western Reserve University's Dr. Aviva Vincent.

Dr. Vincent leads one horse into a stall where visitors can groom horses while Dr. Vincent observes how it helps the people calm down.

That's why Dr. Vincent is trying to color in the gray.

By measuring the biological response in saliva, Dr. Vincent's work is among the first trying to figure out how much therapy animals, like the horses at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center help reduce stress in people.

Dr. Vincent grooms a horse at Fieldstone Farm.

She's already conducted a similar experiment where children were paired up with therapy dogs during a dentist's appointment. That work showed that the dogs helped stress hormones go down while relaxation hormones increased. In bringing the study to the horse farm, she can test both children and adults and get a sample size large enough to determine how much humans benefit from being around the animals.

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Dr. Vincent previously studied how therapy dogs help calm children going to the dentist so much that it can be measured in saliva.

Dr. Vincent says the impact is easy to spot.

"I can tell where [people are] at in their processing and regulation based on how the horse is," said Dr. Vincent. "So if they're really tight and tense and they're not feeling it yet and they're struggling, the horse is pacing."

Riders at Fieldstone Farm work with "able-bodied handlers" who help lead and care for the horses.

Once the person who is grooming or riding the horse calms down, she says the horse will too.

Dr. Vincent's work could open the door for therapy animals to be considered a more legitimate treatment, potentially replacing some prescriptions or some people in the right circumstances or being used along side other treatments.

"If it's a matter of increasing relaxation, you don't need a medication just for the anxiety piece," said Dr. Vincent.