Ponies and horses are good for our children (and for us, too)

A scientific study confirms that a relationship with horses and ponies promotes a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in the hormoneoxytocin, the hormone of affection, love and calm. Professor Alessandra Graziottin recently published an article in the weekly magazine Oggi where she explains from a scientific perspective how contact with our friends horses and ponies reduces stress and anxiety in children, adolescents and even adults.


Prof. Alessandra Graziottin
Director of the Center for Gynecology and Medical Sexology
H. San Raffaele Resnati, Milan

A TODAY reader writes:
“Very interesting article on the loneliness of our hyper-connected kids and oxytocin. However, it seems to me that animals, not just peers, also help with loneliness and stress: is this an oxytocin-mediated effect? My daughter, 8, who is anxious and aggressive (she suffered greatly from separation from my wife), has been a different child since she mounts “her ponino….”
Renato C. (Padua)

Professor Alessandra Graziottin answers:
“Excellent food for thought, gentle reader, thank you very much. I delved into the question on the scientific front, as I always do before responding, in this case on the effect of horses on oxytocin and their anti-stress ability. Well-trained animals (“Animal Assisted Counseling”) can help children and adolescents recover greater serenity, overcome trauma, and reduce stress and negative feelings, alongside certified psychotherapists or instructors. And it is possible to study whether there are changes in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and the powerful stress-relieving hormone oxytocin, the hormone of affection, love, and calm, before and after a session with these animals by dosing these hormones in the saliva, either of the children or adolescents, or in that of the animals. Thus, they are rigorous assessments without any invasiveness or additional stress. Well, yes: a relationship with an animal also reduces anxiety and stress, precisely by acting on a neurobiological level. These are not just emotions in the air, but precise changes in the behavior and brains of the young, which are also manifested through an increase in oxytocin produced by specialized snow cells and poured into the blood and saliva, and a reduction in cortisol.

The most recent scientific study is just called “Reining in Anxiety” (RiA). It is a therapeutic program for stressed and anxious children and adolescents, carried out in American riding centers by trained instructors (Kimberly Hoagwood et al., Animals 2022). Tests showed that the reduction in cortisol and significant increase in oxytocin correlated with increased calm and greater well-being among the students, as assessed by instructors (and parents, as you yourself noted well with your little one).

Many anti-stress and anti-anxiety factors intervene in children and adolescents when they play, ride horses, and begin to care for them.These gentle and sensitive animals enter the lives of young children with a wave of surprising newness. Something ancient moves inside the bodies and inside the hearts of our children. A breath of real life, of different play, made of new sensations and balances, of stimuli, of smells, of small and big challenges, of excitement, of laughter. And of deep joy. Playing with the pony can give a different inner music, even more so if the child then has a special relationship with him or her. I am happy for your little girl!

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