Equine-assisted psychotherapy is known to help people address mental and behavioral health issues, but there remains little evidence-based research to prove it.
New Mexico State University School of Social Work Associate Professor Wanda Whittlesey-Jerome is dedicating her academic career to establishing and promoting scientific standards for gathering such information.
"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."
Whittlesey-Jerome has conducted several studies with at-risk charter high school students and adult female survivors of interpersonal violence. The findings indicate the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association's equine-assisted psychotherapy model has had positive impacts on resilience, general self-efficacy, depression, anxiety and global functioning among human participants.
These pilot studies of the model focused on using EAP as an add-on to existing conventional treatments. The first study was with at-risk charter high school students attending Los Puentes Charter School in Albuquerque in 2009.
"There were positive results among the students receiving EAP compared to the students just receiving the psycho-educational component of the study," she said.
A second study was done with women receiving services from the Domestic Violence Resource Center in Albuquerque in 2013.
"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 results of this study have been published in The Practitioner Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology.
"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."
A third study is currently being planned for future implementation.
The Behavioral Health Services Division of the New Mexico Department of Health and Human Services is in the process of providing funds to two non-profit equine therapy organizations to provide free EAGALA-informed equine groups to military families, including warriors and veterans. In addition to funds to pay for the groups, funds are available for gas cards, healthy food and snacks, and healthy beverages, as well as recruitment supplies.
"The Family Fun with Horses Program is an add-on to conventional treatments already available to these families," she said. "We're hopeful that overall family well-being and communication will improve for our military families served through this program."
Recently during a Quarterly Commander's Call, Whittlesey-Jerome spoke to more than 400 airmen at Kirtland Air Force Base about the availability of this program.
"This program has the support of Lt. Col. Bérnabé F. Whitfield, commander of the 58th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, who is concerned with the increased numbers of suicides and divorces among his airmen," she said.
Southwest Horsepower in Albuquerque's South Valley and Equine Therapeutic Connections in Albuquerque's North Valley will be conducting the free military family equine groups. Whittlesey-Jerome will provide program evaluation services pro-bono to help the agencies evaluate the effectiveness of the military family equine groups, and she will submit reports to the state on program outcomes.
EAGALA's mission is to become the global standard for equine-assisted psychotherapy and personal development.
"Part of EAGALA's work is to promote the use and scientific measurement of the effectiveness of its EAP model," said Whittlesey-Jerome, who is a member of the association's board.
Prior to being chosen for the board, she served on the organization's research committee. One of her contributions to the organization is the creation of a graphic model that presents a complete picture containing all of the various components of EAGALA's EAP. This model is currently under review by the leadership of the association.
"An important component of the EAGALA EAP model is that an EAGALA-certified team of professionals -- a mental health specialist and an equine specialist -- co-facilitate the sessions," she said.
"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," she continued. "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."
In one example, participants are asked to create an obstacle course with props such as traffic cones, plastic pipes, swim noodles, hoola hoops and buckets. The task is to get the horses, without halters or lead ropes, to move through the obstacle. After completion of the task, the group members discuss their experiences and write or draw in journals or sketchpads about what they experienced in the session.
"Eventually, I hope to be able to gather additional research data that continues to build an evidence base to further support the use of the EAGALA EAP model," she said.