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Equine Assisted Learning - What is it!

posted by Horse Owner Today    |   April 8, 2011 19:35


Very little literature exists that specifically defines and describes EAL. Much

of what has been written is vaguely identified within the broader area of

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAT is an area that has, for the most part,

been based on an understanding of the use of small companion animals

within the context of healing relationships between animals and humans.

The first documented empirical study that investigated both the healing

benefits of animals and the potential benefits of animals as cofacilitators in

therapy was published in 1962; Boris Levinson used his dog in therapy with

Horse as Healer 91

children (Hallberg, 2004; Heimlich, 2001 as cited in Schultz, 2005; Levinson,

1984; Morrison, 2007). With ongoing interest and research into understanding

the contributing factors that may enhance a person’s sense of physical,

psychological, and spiritual health and healing, the role of the animal has

evolved to a place of significance with its inclusion in a range of therapeutic

interventions and programs. Although a long-standing and growing body of

literature exists related to the use of small animal companions in increasing

one’s sense of wellness, a more recent and less studied phenomenon gaining

international growth and attention is a movement toward the inclusion of

horses in learning programs. These programs specifically aim to develop and

enhance an individual’s communication skills, self-awareness, and ability to

interact with others.

Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is a relatively new field within the area

of equine-assisted programs and draws primarily on the tenets of experiential

learning — learning through hands-on experience. While resonating

with some of the “core values” (MacKinnon, 2007, p. 1) found within

other equine-assisted interventions (e.g., Equine Assisted Psychotherapy,

Therapeutic Riding, Hippotherapy), in general terms EAL is an educational

program that is facilitated within a group format and focuses on ground activities

rather than riding. In EAL programs, participants engage in structured,

facilitator-led sessions that include constant feedback related to participants’

experiences (EAGALA, 2008; Horses and Humans Research Foundation, 2008;

MacKinnon, 2007; NARHA, 2008). The sessions provide opportunities for participants

to become involved in situations that require interaction with the

horse and the group, and to reflect on these experiences. The overall intent is

to create opportunities whereby participants, through direct experience with

the horse, learn about self, internalize this awareness within the sessions,

and generalize it to other life situations (EAGALA, 2008; MacKinnon, 2007;

NARHA, 2008).

Given the horse’s superior intuitive nature, direct interaction with it

is a unique experience. Yorke (2003, p. 2) describes the essential difference

between horses and humans based on categories of predator and prey, in

that “humans are predators and horses are prey which has required a significant

degree of trust despite domestication.” The horse’s intuitive nature

has evolved as a mere function of survival; it is constantly attuned to its surroundings

and the subtle communication within the herd as a response to

ever-changing environments. In this way, horses have been observed to have

acute communication skills within their social structures and highly adaptive

92 © Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 6(1) 2008

behavioural responses within those structures (MacKinnon, 2007). Thus the

horse has the ability to respond intuitively to human behaviour and intent,

which results in immediate feedback from the animal (Frame, 2006; Graham,

2007; Hallberg, 2004; Kersten and Thomas, 1997; MacKinnon, 2007; Shultz,

2005; Tramutt, 2003). This response creates opportunities for an EAL participant

to react both cognitively and behaviourally in relation to the cues from

the horse. In the broadest sense, EAL is an approach aimed at increasing life

skills through hands-on doing, and has been identified as useful in building

communication, problem-solving, and team building skills, as well as enhancing

personal awareness and a sense of self (MacKinnon, 2007; NARHA;

Rothe et. al., 2005).


exerpt from

"Horse as Healer: An Examination of Equine Assisted Learning in the Healing of First Nations Youth from Solvent Abuse1"

Colleen Anne Dell, Research Chair in Substance Abuse, Department of Sociology

University of Saskatchewan*

Darlene Chalmers, Faculty of Social Work

University of Regina

Debra Dell, Coordinator, Youth Solvent Addiction Committee

Ernie Sauve, Executive Director, White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre

Sturgeon Lake First Nation

Tamara MacKinnon, Program Director, Cartier Equine Learning Centre