Horse-related learning benefits at-risk youths, study findings suggest

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Mandy Oaklander, writing in Time magazine in 2018, noted that social support can come on four legs, not just two.

Oaklander was commenting on the rise of animal therapy and its ability to help individuals facing a range of challenges.

A fresh study, carried out by researchers at Mississippi State University, has added more evidence in support of equine assisted learning, which was shown to benefit at-risk youths.

Katie Cagle-Holtcamp, Molly Nicodemus, Julie Parker and Mattie Dunlap, writing in the Journal of Youth Development, noted that high school and college-aged youth, aged 16 to 24, who are currently idle — neither in school nor employed — make up 1 in 9 youth in the United States.

“Identifying those youth that are at risk of becoming a part of this statistic is critical to educators,” they say.

At-risk youth have been exposed to a montage of risk factors in childhood linked to negative outcomes in the following years. They can have low self-esteem, poor social competency and decreased coping skills.

“For at-risk youth, a classroom that doesn’t create a safe environment for the youth’s emotions hinders their learning potential and this can have a permanent impact on their academic future, thus emphasizing the importance of an effective therapeutic intervention.”

Traditionally, talk-therapy has been recommended for these individuals in the hope of working through the challenges they face from home, school, and their communities.

“Unfortunately, talk-therapy has not shown reliable, consistent results; therefore, the problem continues to intensify.”

The study team noted the growing interest in equine-assisted learning in the educational community, with a range of benefits reported for individuals facing a range of difficulties.

However, a challenge with experiential learning programs for at-risk youth is creating an emotionally safe environment that opens up the participants to learning.

Equine education program

The four researchers set out to determine if a program centered around equine education would promote emotional safety and learning in at-risk youth.

Thirteen youths, aged 6 to 16 and considered at-risk, took part in a program focused on teaching them horse behavior, management, handling, and riding, while incorporating the four themes of emotional safety — self-esteem, personal security, respect, and connectivity.

The program, involving four weekly lessons, advanced through to an introduction to horse riding in the third week, with the fourth week devoted to learning further riding skills.

Each week also focused on one of the four themes of emotional safety.

The effectiveness of the program was assessed in tests before and after the program, while emotional safety was explored with each participant using weekly debriefing interviews.

All participants in the program completed both forms of assessment.

The results revealed improvements in equine knowledge and emotional safety, particularly as it related to personal security.

“These results suggest equine-assisted learning, with programming directed towards educating the participant about the horse, promotes emotional safety and learning for at-risk youth.”

Discussing their findings, the researchers said the emotional support given by animals has been well documented and, in this study, the responses expressed by participants further supported this idea.

“All participants attended each weekly lesson and participated in all lesson activities,” they said. This showed that, despite these youths being labeled at-risk, they had a willingness to learn through the program.

All participants showed an improvement in equine knowledge test scores, with three of them at least doubling their scores in the test after the program.

“Furthermore, this sense of being able to learn, and confidence in their ability to learn a new activity in their lessons with the horse, were reflected in the interview responses.

“As each week progressed, lessons covered more difficult activities with the horse, and yet, the participants were able to take what they learned from previous lessons and apply it to the next lesson starting from simply being able to catch an unfamiliar horse out in pasture to being able to confidently saddle and bridle that same horse and safely ride around the arena.”

Creating a safe learning environment

The authors say it is difficult to create an emotionally safe environment in which at-risk youth can successfully learn.

“The significant improvement in personal security percentages in conjunction with the increase in equine knowledge scores by the end of the four-week session indicates that the equine environment utilized for equine-assisted learning may offer an alternative approach besides the classroom for at-risk youth.”

However, the assessments did reveal an absence of significant increases through the sessions for all themes, including a small drop in respect and self-esteem percentages after weeks 2 and 3, at which point riding activities were presented. This, they said, warranted further investigation.

That said, the four suggested an improvement in percentages might have occurred if the program had continued past four weeks, which would have allowed for participants to become more comfortable with riding and, in turn, improve their feelings of respect and self-esteem.

“Nevertheless, in the end, overall improvements in themes, the positive nature of all of the interviews, the improved knowledge of equines by the end of the session, and the 100% participation in all activities for each lesson suggest program activities were beneficial to this specific population.”

It was noted that, as each horse and human pair completed activities or challenges, participants expressed joy, along with a sense of accomplishment.

The authors said further research should evaluate youths after their participation in equine-assisted learning to learn whether it has a lasting positive impact without the presence of the horse.

Cagle-Holtcamp and her colleagues described their study as the first step in understanding equine-assisted learning and its potential for positive intervention in the emotional safety of those youth labeled at-risk.

“The youth participants gained an understanding of their equine partners, and, in turn, developed a willingness to face new, more challenging activities with their equine partners as the equine-assisted learning session progressed.”

In the end, the program design will potentially aid in developing a future horse-related curriculum to assist programs that seek to provide services to at-risk youth.

Does Equine Assisted Learning Create Emotionally Safe Learning Environments for At-Risk Youth?
Katie Cagle-Holtcamp, Molly Christine Nicodemus, Julie Parker and Mattie Helen Dunlap.
http://jyd. pitt. edu/ Vol. 14 Issue 4 DOI 10.5195/jyd.2019.727

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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