Undergraduate Honors Thesis Projects

Date of Award

Spring 4-21-2020

Document Type

Honors Paper

Degree Name

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology-BS


Equine Science


Dr. Steffanie Burk

First Committee Member

Dr. Jeffery Lehman

Second Committee Member

Dr. Halard Lescinsky


Equine Cortisol Concentrations, Grooming, Therapeutic Riding, Autism, Adolescents

Subject Categories

Animal-Assisted Therapy | Animals | Endocrine System | Large or Food Animal and Equine Medicine


The use of horses in therapeutic riding programs, especially for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), has grown, yet the impact of grooming and riding on equine stress levels remains unknown. The aim of this study was to compare the effects of grooming and therapeutic riding on salivary cortisol concentrations of 10 horses in a therapeutic riding program. Samples were taken pre and post over two control and grooming days and over two series of nine therapeutic riding lessons for adolescents with ASD. On grooming days, each horse was groomed using a set protocol. On riding days, horses were ridden following a set lesson plan. On control days, horses remained in their stalls. The samples were analyzed using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to determine cortisol concentrations. The mean change in cortisol concentrations over time for control, grooming, and riding samples were compared using one-way repeated measures ANOVA. Paired t-tests were used to compare the change over time for individual lessons and controls. No significant differences were found for the change over time during therapeutic riding, grooming, and control. A significant post-riding increase in salivary cortisol concentrations was found during lesson four when compared with controls (P=0.02). This was the first lesson focusing on walk-trot transitions, and the riders’ posture may have impacted the horses. Overall, the data indicate that therapeutic riding and grooming had no major effect on equine cortisol concentrations, suggesting that these human-animal interactions did not compromise the well-being of the horses.

Available for download on Wednesday, April 27, 2022