Horses. The animals are known in human society as beasts of burden or the ideal mode of transportation before the automobile hit the market. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that horses started developing a new reputation as potential companions to help people develop stronger mental health. As a result, equine-assisted therapy is a relatively new and growing field of research, but not one that is unrecognized.
Oxford’s Equine Therapist Katie Holtcamp recently received a prestigious scholarship from the Gamma Sigma Delta Agricultural Honor Society for her research into the effectiveness of equine therapy at Oxford Treatment Center.
Equine Therapy at Oxford
Katie Holtcamp, a Certified Equine Assisted Psychotherapist and Equine Assisted Learning Instructor, got her start at Oxford Treatment Center about two years back. “I had zero knowledge of addiction when I first started,” Katie said, “It wasn’t my story.”
Instead, Katie had an interest in researching animal physiology, or animal behavior in lay terms. Oxford operates a long-running equine-assisted therapy program for its patients struggling with addiction. The program is designed to foster mutual trust and confidence through connection with animals.
After working with patients in the program for some time, Katie started noticing some similarities in patient experiences. Phrases like “I trust the horse,” came up often as patients reached a turning point in the therapy. Patient comfort began to coincide with emotional safety. “But (emotional safety) doesn’t have a meaning,” Katie said, “It doesn’t really have an exact definition.” In research terms, emotional safety is subjective.
Researching Emotions Through Equus
Katie set out to research the changes she was noticing during the equine therapy process. Working with a population consisting of young adults, Katie distributed a survey before and after treatment to the participants. The 60-question survey was designed to gauge four qualities of the patient: Connectivity, Respect, Self-Worth, and Personal Security. These four areas are addressed by Oxford’s equine program.
Research into equine-assisted therapy programs is a bit of a gray area. “A horse keeps authenticity. However, a horse doesn’t know human theory,” Katie explained, “A lot of equine programs foster equine-assisted happiness, not therapy.” Katie’s research measured not just happiness, but the therapeutic aspects that differentiate Oxford’s program from other equine-assisted programs that promote a “just go pet a horse” methodology.
The results from the research are promising.
Young adults participating in the study demonstrated significant growth in all four categories. This is especially the case when the survey results were contrasted with the results for a group of college students who worked with horses, but were not subject to therapeutic practices.
One interesting finding was how patients grew more comfortable in treatment when they began to recognize a horse’s body language. For example, when horses are relaxing, they tend to fold one of their hind legs towards one side. To the untrained eye, this looks like the horse is getting ready to kick at anything behind it. However, when patients were able to recognize the subtle signs of the horse just settling into a relaxed posture, they began connecting with the animal on a deeper level. Confidence and feelings of security in the presence of the animal rose.
Scholarship and the Future of Evidence-Based Equine Therapy
Katie’s research was awarded the International Scholarship of Merit by the Gamma Sigma Delta Agricultural Honor Society through their Mississippi State University chapter. “I really wasn’t expecting that to turn into anything,” Katie said, recalling being nominated for the scholarship. She went on to praise the can-do attitude of the staff at Oxford, particularly of COO Mark Stovall and Director of Experiential Services Tori Ossenheimer for their “willingness to take a chance” and their support of her research.
Katie Holtcamp plans to continue her research into equine-assisted therapy at Oxford, and has plans to conduct a similar research survey with adult populations.
To read more about Oxford’s Equine-Assisted Therapy program and all the great work Katie and her peers are doing, click here.