A Look at Equine Assisted Learning and How It Can Change Lives
By Paige Cerulli
Many riders are well aware of the many benefits that horses bring into our lives, from stress relief to emotional support to confidence building. But Equine Assisted Learning takes things one step further. In Equine Assisted Learning, a relationship with horses facilitates an experiential learning process, so that people can and learn about themselves. And in most cases, the learning takes place without ever riding the horse.
Equine Assisted Learning consists of sessions when participants meet and interact with horses based on components of relationships. Through simple observation and awareness during grounded activities, humans can learn how to simplify life’s challenges and find new solutions to old problems. According to Blair McKissock, MSEd, Director of Education at Strides to Success, participants learn important life skills during Equine Assisted Learning sessions that can then be transferred back to the real world. “You have to learn how to embody confidence,” notes McKissock. “You have to have extensive courage to try something new.” In working with a horse, “you’re forced to take a hard look at your own patterns of behavior, and your own self-regulation is a big piece of it.”
Strides to Success is a PATH Premiere Accredited Facility in Plainfield, Indiana was founded in 2004 by Debbie Anderson. Anderson’s founding vision was to provide unique learning opportunities that offer support for people that were not having success in traditional educational or therapeutic settings.
McKissock and Anderson have had the opportunity to work with and facilitate countless sessions, and note that Equine Assisted Learning has many different applications, including corporate, leadership, education, and coaching uses. Strides to Success was the first center in the country to be PATH accredited for mental health and learning. Today the facility employs two full-time mental therapists on site who operate their practices out of the barn, in addition to Anderson, McKissock, and three Equine Assisted Learning facilitators.
So why does Equine Assisted Learning work? McKissock explains that Equine Assisted Learning is an experiential approach; people learn by doing, and that direct experience provides a transfer of learning. People can then apply those lessons to real life. Additionally, people have a natural attraction to nature in general, but “there’s a certain awareness somebody has to have in order to keep themselves safe” when working with a horse. “Within this experiential process and vulnerability that is created, people are required to think in different ways. When we work with horses, we have to problem solve because they are unpredictable by nature. We have to embody confidence to keep ourselves safe and to have a relationship where the horse responds.”
Alexandra Moran, MSW, understands just how effective Equine Assisted Learning is, and established an Equine Assisted Learning and Business and Horsemanship program at Boulder Ridge Equine in Westville, Indiana. Moran is a manager of a multi-million dollar corporate Chicago enterprise and is also a professor in the Business School at Purdue University Calumet. Moran realized that she could use horses to teach the leadership development, communication skills, and team building skills that she was teaching in the classroom, but horses could teach those skills faster “and with a lot more emotional intelligence.”
Moran’s decision to implement Equine Assisted Learning was also spurred on by a particular riding student. As the head coach of the Purdue Calumet Equestrian Facility, Moran met a rider who was a veteran returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Explains Moran, “I noticed very quickly how healing the horses were for him, and his being able to reintegrate himself back into civilian life by using the horses was really crucial. I started thinking through how beneficial using the horses and the herd could be for working with a number of different life skills, and I started exploring ways that horses were being used in this manner. I come from the business world, I have a real job in finance, so as I started brainstorming on it, it became clearer and clearer – I run a business, have all these different stakeholders at work, and it’s very much like how a herd operates.”
Starting an Equine Assisted Learning program is no small undertaking, though. Moran hired Anderson and McKissock from Strides to Success to coach the Boulder Ridge Equine team on how to run the program, how to price it, and how to facilitate sessions. The program opened in 2014, but Moran faced the added challenge of clearly communicating what Equine Assisted Learning is to the business world. “From the business world, it’s hard to wrap your mind around. We have to be really clear about the fact that we’re not riding horses, and that everything’s done in a controlled environment,” states Moran. “There’s a burgeoning body of research that I can actually show a corporation that shows the benefits [of Equine Assisted Learning].” Moran has found that referrals work well in the business space, and that she can then meet with human resources and business professionals to explain the benefits of Equine Assisted Learning.
Equine Assisted Learning is a field which continues to grow in popularity, and though certification programs are available, there are no standards for operating defined yet. Since Strides to Success has been hosting workshops and trainings for more than twelve years, the facility now offers a HorseWork Facilitator training and credential. In order to attain the credential, a professional must perform over 200 hours of training and evaluation. Professionals with over 1,000 hours of teaching can be designated as a HorseWork Professional. This credential can identify the professional as having the training and experience to offer Equine Assisted Learning services to the consumer.