What’s Involved in Doing Research?

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary research is “the careful, systematic, patient study and investigation in some field of knowledge, undertaken to establish facts or principles.” So what is actually involved in conducting research into various equine-assisted activities or therapies (EAAT)? What makes research top quality? Is it easy to do?

The goal is to have a study that is rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. We wanted our research to also evaluate the effect on the horses chosen and whether or not they were stressed at any time. Very little research has also looked at the impact of various interactions on the horses. All three of ours research projects are based on working with horses and sentient beings.

Most people appreciate the knowledge gained from research but they don’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves. I was approached by my friends Barbara Rector and Dr. Ann Baldwin, to host a research project at Borderlands Center that would look at the effectiveness of an equine-facilitated learning exercise developed by Barbara for her Adventures in Awareness process. (www.adventuresinawareness.net). Having worked with Barbara for over 25 years I was well aware of the exercise called Con Su Permiso that also involves the preliminary steps of Mutually Choosing a horse, and Say Hello ending with Con Su Permiso.

Design Questions

As we sat down with Dr. Baldwin to design the protocol for studying this simple human-equine interaction it soon became obvious that this was going to be harder than it had sounded. Should we use the large arena or the small arena? How many participants can we measure in a day? We wanted to measure at least 24 people to have more statistically meaningful results. What should our control group exercise look like? Should we keep everybody away from my dogs? How can we be consistent with what we say to everyone? These were just some of the variables we needed to control.

Controlling Distractions

It’s especially difficult to conduct a well-controlled research project when dealing with horses and weather. Without a covered arena we were at the mercy of Mother Nature. We had to trust our participants to follow the protocol they were given concerning restrictions they had to follow, such as no caffeine, before they even arrived. Caffeine could influence the results of some of the tests, for example.   Research has also been done on the effects petting a dog can have on certain human markers such as blood pressure and heart rate. Finding a place to stash my dogs was one of the hardest parts of the study. They were convinced they needed to help us out! I even had to tell one participant she couldn’t swing on my swing until after all measurements were made. Good research requires a detail oriented team member to think of all those possible confounding variables and minimize their effect on the outcome.


Most good research starts with a pre-pilot and/or pilot studies. In our case these were necessary to answer the questions listed above and refine our process of measuring the horses and the people in a timely way. This required a large team of support personnel, some to help with the horses, some with checking in and measuring the human participants and a few others to help videotape each interaction and handle the equipment used on both horses and humans. Fortunately Dr. Baldwin had a couple of University of Arizona interns willing to help her with the measurements.

We started with a pre-pilot of 3 volunteers. They loved the experience and we learned a lot about how to explain the process to the participants and how long it would take to do all the measurements. Then we followed with 2 pilots with 8 people in each one and 4 horses available for them to choose. We realized the convenience of the location for the small arena was easier on the horses, the participants and the research team, considerably decreasing the amount of time each participant took to complete Con Su Permiso.

The Whole Process

The whole process to refine our protocol and complete and analyze the results of our pre-pilot and 2 pilots took almost two years of planning and practicing. While the preliminary work was taking place, we were also looking for a funding source. Once we received a grant from the Ruth McCormick Trust, the actual research could take place over 3 different weekends in October and November of 2014. We had 8 people come each weekend with half doing the control exercise first and half doing the equine exercise first.

We collected lots of data that had to be analyzed. That took several more months and was followed by interpreting the data and writing the manuscript to submit for publication to a peer reviewed journal. The subject of Phase 1 of our ongoing research was the Con Su Permiso exercise and was conducted at Borderlands Center in Sonoita. After that Phase 2 was conducted in 2015 in Sebastopol, CA at Lisa Walter’s EquuSatori Center using a Mindful Grooming interaction. Phase 3 was done in 2016 at Linda Kohanov’s EPONA Center in Amado, AZ using her Rock Back and Sigh exercise. The process of collecting the data and then analyzing it has begun. Now we can also start to look at the similarities and differences found from one Phase to another.

Is It Worth It?

Research like this is sorely needed to determine which types of exercises are beneficial to the human participants and what effects, if any, the exercises have on the horses. This could potentially tell us what factors are important in determining the appropriate exercises to use for which clients and at which point in their participation in an equine-facilitated learning program. Is it worth the effort? I believe so. I believe we have a responsibility to our clients and equine partners to provide the most effective human-horse interactions for both.