North Dakota professor studies therapeutic effect of horses

Erika Berg is exploring whether equine-assisted therapy benefits children with behavioral issues. Photo: North Dakota State University
Erika Berg is exploring whether equine-assisted therapy benefits children with behavioral issues. Photo: North Dakota State University

Can horses can help positively modify the behavior of children with troubled backgrounds?

Erika Berg, assistant professor of equine science at North Dakota State University, is conducting research that could provide evidence for equine-assisted therapy producing better results than traditional therapy for some populations.

She is collecting the data in conjunction with a residential child care facility called Home on the Range, a working ranch in Sentinel Butte, in the west of North Dakota.

Home on the Range provides education, therapy, spiritual guidance, and recreational and work activities to more than 50 boys and girls aged 12-19.

“This type of therapy is something that needs to be considered,” said Berg, who is nearing the final stages of collecting data for her study.

“It’s certainly not for everyone. But for those individuals it is appropriate for, the benefits are quite remarkable.”

Berg and Home on the Range have been collecting data for four years.

The research begins with assessments when children arrive at Home on the Range. These assessments identify children with negative or problematic behaviors directed towards their surroundings.

Some of the behaviors include aggression, lying and defiance. These children are more likely to harm others than harm themselves and are at greater risk for anti-social behaviors later in life, Berg said.

According to Mike Gooch, clinical director at Home on the Range, many of the children at the ranch have coped poorly with trauma in their lives.

The program uses several different therapies, including equine and canine, to help children learn to better cope with their situation.

Berg’s research quantifies and compares behaviors of the children at Home on the Range before and after 12 weeks of traditional talk therapy or equine therapy.

The equine sessions involve the child, horse, social worker and an equine specialist.

“Everybody works as a team,” Berg said. “The job of the social worker is to ask the right questions. They are not interpreting the situation for the individual. They are letting the person figure it out for themselves.”

The intensive equine therapy program includes riding and grooming, as well as equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions that involve the horse, the equine specialist and mental health expert for seven hours each week for 12 weeks.

Berg said that preliminary evidence indicates the problematic behaviors of children in the equine-assisted therapy program normalized in all areas.

For children in 12 weeks of traditional talk therapy, results were less dramatic as behaviors did not come back to normal levels in all areas, Berg said.

Gooch has been amazed by the results.

“This is really groundbreaking,” he said. “No-one has really done this in a rigorous and scientific way. To see how those kids respond to that intervention has been nothing short of phenomenal.”

When the study is completed, the results could be used to support the effectiveness of equine therapy to health care providers that do not currently provide coverage for the therapy.

Berg said equine-assisted therapy can be expensive due to the costs of maintaining, housing and feeding the horses and those costs needed to be justified.

Equine-assisted therapy provides a unique personal experience, Berg said. The presence of the horse compels people to interact and become more aware of their actions.

“Because a horse’s survival depends on effectively reading their surroundings, they are very keyed in to the body language of other living beings, including people,” Berg said.

“If you walk up to a horse very aggressively, chances are they won’t stick around. From experiences like this, individuals can draw parallels about how they might approach people in their life and work to figure out more positive ways of interacting.”

Berg hopes to continue researching the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy with other populations. She is interested in studying the therapy’s effects for children with autism and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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