Equine therapy can improve social skills of at-risk youth, research shows

May 31, 2015

Techniques learned with horses can be transferred to humans

OTTAWA, May 31, 2015 — A study by a Kingston, Ontario, researcher shows that guided interaction with horses helps improve social skills for at-risk youth.

Mary Bouchard researched the effect of horses on at-risk youth for her Master’s degree in education at Queen’s University. She will present the results of her study at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa.

Bouchard says it has been known for a long time that animals can have a positive effect on human behaviour. That’s why dogs are taken to hospitals and nursing homes, and why during exam time, some universities allow students to make an appointment to play with puppies. It’s a stress reducer. But little work had been done with horses, and Bouchard says her study is one of the first in Canada to look at what she calls equine-assisted learning.

The study involved at-risk youth between the ages of 11 and 18. They were invited a farm to take part in a four-day summer-camp-style program during which they were given instruction on how to interact with horses. Bouchard explains that there was no riding involved. All activities were geared toward understanding how to get the horse to do what the participants wanted it to do—and to understanding how the horse influenced them.

She says that as herd animals, and as animals that have to be on the lookout for predators, horses have a keenly developed sense of awareness, with an ability to pick up on body language and other cues given by humans around them. You may say you’re not nervous or stressed, but a horse can sense whether that’s really the case.

To get a horse to do what you want it to do, you have to build its trust. “It won’t do something if it thinks you are going to do something bad to it,” she says.

The youth were taught various techniques for communicating with horses, and also learned how to gauge and modulate their own feelings, emotions and body language enough to influence the horses’ behaviour. Bouchard says the study found that after the sessions, the participants described a range of positive outcomes, ranging from increased levels of empathy, to improved social skills, to decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety.

She described how two of the participants opened up to her about the experience. “They had wonderful things to say, and enjoyed working with the horses and doing something they hadn’t done before,” she says. “They developed a bond with the horses, and they indicated that they wanted to try the techniques they’d learned with people as well.”

Bouchard says she hopes other researchers will work on equine-assisted learning to explore its full potential.

Mary Bouchard will be presenting this research on June 1 at the 2015 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “‘I just connect with the horses’: Developing social skills and resiliency through Equine Assisted Learning” and will take place at 11:30 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the LMX building, room 240.

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