Study on horse therapy shows promising results

            A study released recently by university researchers reinforces a long-held belief of a Kamsack woman who has been fostering therapeutic sessions with horses at Ravenheart Farm.

            In recognition of Global One Health Day (November 3), researchers Colleen Dell of the University of Saskatchewan and Darlene Chalmers of the University of Regina released study results showing that people who participated in mental health and addictions treatment programs involving interactions with horses reported therapeutic benefits in their healing.

article continues below

In the 2014 pilot study, 60 clients provided feedback on 287 encounters (sessions with horses) in programs at four addiction and mental health treatment sites in Saskatchewan, said a release from the Department of Sociology and School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan. Program facilitators and treatment site staff reported their observations as well.

One of the programs involved learning self-development skills through interactions with horses, the release said. Two focused on therapeutic horsemanship (riding and care of horses) for children and youth in residential care. The fourth involved a collaborative approach to psychotherapy involving a licensed therapist and a horse professional in addressing client treatment goals.

“It is interesting to see the similarity in outcomes from the four different sites,” said Chalmers. “The clients participating in all the programs felt love and support from the horses, which is an important and often overlooked element of human healing.”

Chalmers notes that a strong bond can develop between horses and humans, engendering mutual respect and trust and paving the way for improved relationships with other people, it said. Previous studies of equine-assisted therapy have reported an increase in feelings of unconditional love and acceptance among participants.

“This bond with horses can be really important in therapy because there are a lot of things that people can’t readily do for one another in a treatment facility, such as touch one another. Horses offer physical affection through touch,” Dell said.

Dell said the vast majority of clients felt calm, supported and in control of their feelings following the horse interactions. Some were more willing to co-operate in treatment programs following the sessions. A teacher noted that students were more likely to be focused and motivated afterwards.

The research project was funded from Dell’s U of S Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness, and was undertaken in partnership with organizations that run the horse programs: Cartier Farms, Twisted Wire Ranch, Eagle’s Nest Youth Ranch, and the Saskatoon Health Region’s Adult Mental Health and Addictions program in partnership with Nutana Collegiate.

Next steps would be to undertake future research with a larger sample and to conduct a randomized control trial, said Dell. She noted that the horse and First Nations culture are historically linked, and that there is a need to more fully understand this connection.

“It is so important that we gain as much understanding as we can about the interventions that we offer,” said Dawn Rain, clinical social worker in Adult Mental Health and Addictions Services at the Saskatoon Health Region. “This project has confirmed what we felt we already knew from offering the equine program, but also raised questions to push us further. It also provided us with greater understanding for evaluating equine-assisted interventions in the future.”

The latest work builds on the team’s research findings released last year on canine-assisted therapy, said Dell.

“Sharing these findings on Global One Health Day is a fantastic opportunity to add to the conversation in an important way about the interface of animals, humans and the environment to the well-being of everyone,” she said.

Carol Marriott of Ravenheart Equine Learning Centre and Retreat near Kamsack offers equine-guided healing, growth and discovery sessions.

“I, personally don’t do the ‘therapy’ as I’m not a therapist as such, even though equine assisted learning/coaching, is therapeutic,” Marriott said. “So, for instance, if we are doing ‘therapy’ with a client, I would have a therapist, or social worker with me.”

Marriott says that horses can inspire focus, awareness, empowerment, and lift spirits naturally. She offers equine-assisted learning sessions for individuals, families and groups as well as personal growth and development sessions and workshops.

She started Ravenheart in 2007, so 2017 will be her 10th anniversary.

“I completed my Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) certification with Cartier Farms of Prince Albert, which is a partner in this study,” she said. “In addition to Ravenheart, I also help co-ordinate and facilitate equine assisted learning with the H.E.A.L. (Healing Equine Assisted Learning) Program at Cote First Nation and Chief Gabriel Cote Education Complex, which includes the literacy and horses. The Horses Inspiring Children to Read and Succeed project receives funding through the Painted Hand Community Development Corporation and Affinity Credit Union.

Marriott works with clients of all ages, some referred through social services.

“You can see it is my passion,” she said.

“Thank you for the absolute privilege of spending time with your horses,” said one of her clients. “What a gift they are to share with others. I came ready to learn, heal and grow and thought I could only do that through tears and pain. Instead I found out I could grow and heal and learn through fun, love and laughter – not pain! Thank you for showing me that!”

“I was skeptical at first about everything, but especially when told the horses choose to volunteer,” another participant said. “When I saw them do that, it completely changed my mind and attitude.”

“Everything was wonderful. The exercises were great. You made everyone feel safe and comfortable,” said a social worker attending a session. “It was a fantastic day. I could totally feel and see how this would be very beneficial for many of the kids we work with.” Thanks for an amazing day!”

“I found working with the horses very interesting,” another social worker said. “I have now seen a new side to horse behaviour and how it can be very similar to human behaviour. I learned that we can try to lead the horses but if we don’t approach them properly then I cannot get them to do what I want them to do. I also enjoyed the quiet and serene setting of the ranch.”