Volunteer Engagement within Equine Assisted Services

Aviva Vincent, Meghan Morrissey, Mary Acri, Fei Guo, Kimberly Hoagwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examines the effect of volunteering within a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl) premiere accredited center by exploring the experiences of volunteers leading horses in adaptive riding lessons. Adaptive Riding lessons are horseback riding lessons for individuals ages four through the lifespan, with special needs, varying from cognitive, physical, social-emotional, or other challenges. Volunteers directly impact the rider-horse bond by increasing accessibility to horseback riding for individuals with disabilities, fostering a meaningful bond between the rider and horse. The research questions were as follows: (1) do saliva measures of cortisol and alpha-amylase (stress), and oxytocin (affiliative bonding) change over time for volunteers; and (2) how satisfied are volunteers with volunteering for Equine Assisted Services (EAS)? Forty-one volunteers participated in Reining in Anxiety, an intervention combining adaptive riding and cognitive behavioral therapy. Physiological data (i.e., pooled saliva, saliva combined from various glands throughout the mouth, resting under the tongue prior to collection) were collected pre/post riding session at four time points during the 10-session intervention, measuring oxytocin, cortisol, and alpha-amylase. Post-intervention, volunteers completed a survey about their experiences as volunteers and as participants in the study. All saliva samples were collected successfully. There was a non-significant, positive trend in oxytocin and alpha-amylase, while cortisol remained level. The responses in the survey suggested that volunteers perceive their role positively, with nuanced experiences of a sense of responsibility to ensure safety, and enjoyment in assisting the riders. Volunteers are vital to the safety of the rider and horse. While their perceived and internalized responsibility is evidenced by an increase in stress (e.g., cortisol remaining level and an increase in alpha-amylase), it is not necessarily negative stress, as there is simultaneously affiliative bonding expressed (oxytocin). The complex emotions and experiences of volunteers are important to understand to create meaningful, sustainable volunteer engagement. This is particularly important in the EAS industry, which is reliant on volunteerism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number249
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • adaptive riding
  • anxiety
  • children and youth
  • cortisol
  • equine assisted services
  • horses
  • oxytocin
  • volunteer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • General Veterinary


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