While there is some evidence that equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) can help relieve mental and behavioral health issues in people, there still remains little scientific research on the subject. In an effort to change that, Associate Professor Wanda Whittlesey-Jerome, Ph.D., at New Mexico State University School of Social Work is dedicating her career to establishing and promoting scientific standards for gathering such information.
She has already conducted several studies with at-risk charter high school students and adult female survivors of interpersonal violence. Her findings indicate that equine-assisted psychotherapy has had positive impacts on resilience, general self-efficacy, depression, anxiety, and global functioning among human participants.
Her studies are based on a model from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA).
“Horses are prey animals, so they are constantly scanning their environments,” Whittlesey-Jerome said. “When we enter the arena, they sense if we are calm and balanced, or troubled and on-edge, and react accordingly.
“When they meet us on their own terms, horses become mirrors,” she added. “They react to our inner feelings that we may not show outwardly. They teach us so much about ourselves and can give us insight into what it means to be human.”
The study involving female victims of domestic violence was published in The Practitioner Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology.
“These were women already in the process of trying to manage their abusive relationships,” she said. “While the women received individual counseling and group therapy from the center’s staff, we added EAP to approximately one-half of the overall women studied.”
“The data showed an improvement in the women in the equine group; their self-esteem increased as depression and anxiety decreased,” she said. “But what really intrigued the reviewers of the manuscript was the richness and depth of the qualitative data from the women’s journals.”
“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.”
Now another study is currently being planned for future implementation. Two non-profit equine therapy organizations will be offering free services to military families, including warriors and veterans.
These groups will be based on the ideology of EAGALA, an organization at the forefront of equine-assisted psychotherapy and personal development. An important component of the EAGALA EAP model is that both a mental health specialist and an equine specialist co-facilitate each session.
“The sessions consist of solving problems in groups within the context of being 100 percent on the ground with horses. Participants learn to negotiate and develop a mutual relationship with the horses built on trust and respect,” said Whittlesey-Jerome.
“At the same time, they learn to work together with other participants in new and creative ways that often lead to insight through metaphors that naturally develop in the arena with horses.”