“I Just Connect With the Horses”: Equine Assisted Learning as a Tool for Developing Social Skills and Resiliency in At-Risk Youth

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Bouchard, Mary V.
At-Risk Youth , Equine Assisted Learning , Animal Assisted Intervention , Resiliency , Alternative Intervention , Social Skills , Social Cognition , Experiential Education , Social Cognitive Theory , Educational Psychology , Horse , Outdoor Education
This study describes the experiences reported by at-risk youth in a four-day, equine assisted learning (EAL) program and evaluates the impact of the program on the youths’ social skills and resiliency. A multi-strategy single group pre-test/post-test design was implemented at an EAL facility in Ontario. Two self-report instruments, the Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) and the Resiliency Scales for Children and Adolescents (RSCA), were completed on two occasions: baseline and immediately following participation in EAL. Multiple paired-samples t-tests were computed to determine if there were any changes over time. Two participants were selected for exit interviews on the last day of the program. The results of this work indicated that participation in EAL may positively influence social skills and resiliency development. The self-report scales achieved statistically significant improvement (p < .05) in perceived levels of: empathy, self-control, mastery, optimism, self-efficacy, support, sense of relatedness, social skills, and internalizing symptoms. Additionally, interviews with two participants in the EAL program revealed that participants enjoyed working with the horses, experienced increased self-awareness and self-confidence, felt safe and calm at the farm, and developed trusting bonds with the horses. Further investigation is recommended to determine the underlying mechanisms at work, in addition to whether the perceived gains are maintained and transferable to other areas of the participants’ lives. The overarching goal of this research was to provide a foundation for empirical research on EAL within the Canadian context. It is hoped that the literature, methodologies, results, and recommendations compiled in this study will be used as a stepping stone for more research on employing EAL as a tool for social cognitive development.
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