Anyone who's spent time around horses knows what a therapeutic effect they can have. But the evidence of such benefits has been mostly anecdotal. Until now, that is.
New Mexico State University Associate Professor of Social Work Wanda Whittlesey-Jerome has set herself the task of proving those long-known effects with evidence-based research centered around equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP).
Whittlesey-Jerome says horses are ideal subjects for this type of research because they are so perceptive.
"When they meet us on their own terms, horses become mirrors," she says. As prey animals, they are keenly aware of their surroundings and have well-honed senses.
"They react to our inner feelings that we may not show outwardly."
Equine-assisted psychotherapy is the specialty of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). EAGALA is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and certifications for mental health and personal development professionals who incorporate the use of horses into their practices. It is an international association with over 4,500 members in 50 countries. The organization's goal is to become the world's leading authority on scientifically developed EAP procedures.
Professor Whittlesey-Jerome, an EAGALA board member and former member of the organization's research committee, began her research with several pilot studies using EAGALA's EAP model.
The studies used EAP as an addition to more conventional therapies. Whittlesey-Jerome conducted EAP studies with at-risk high-schoolers and female victims of domestic violence. Her findings suggested that the use of EAP enhanced the positive impacts of the conventional treatments. The study participants who underwent conventional treatments only and did not receive EAP showed less improvement in resilience, feelings of self-worth, depression, anxiety, and overall functionality.
Qualitative data collected from the journals of the domestic violence victims who received EAP was perhaps the most telling of all the findings. According to Whittlesey-Jerome:
"After the groups were over, several of the women were willing to take the next step to walk away from their abusive relationships and move on with their lives because of the self-realizations they gained by participating in the eight EAP sessions."
The findings from the EAP studies have attracted the attention of the Behavioral Health Services Division of the New Mexico Department of Health and Human Services. The department is currently funding EAGALA-based services for military families at Kirkland Air Force Base. Whittlesey-Jerome is overseeing the program implementation and reporting to the state.
The EAGALA EAP model requires an EAGALA-certified mental health specialist and an equine specialist to co-facilitate EAP sessions. Session participants, who remain on the ground with the horses, are asked to perform various individual and collaborative tasks, such as maneuvering a horse through an obstacle course without the aid of halters or lead ropes. Once their tasks have been completed, participants come together as a group to discuss what they've learned.
By developing relationships with their horses and with each other, participants gain valuable insight into themselves and the struggles they face outside the arena.
Whittlesey-Jerome says the research is ongoing. She intends to continue to collect data to support the use of EAGALA's EAP model as a valuable therapeutic tool.
There is some debate as to who first said, "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."
Whoever it was, though, was right. And now there's scientific evidence to prove it.
Want to learn more? Read all about EAGALA and EAP here.