Above: Dr. Anne Barnfield, Brescia Associate Professor, Psychology and horse Lilliput at the London Dressage Association Competition (2012)
London, ON – Dogs are often referred to as “man’s best friend,” providing mental, physical and emotional support to their owners. But, can other animals also fulfill this role, and provide positive mental health and wellness benefits to their care-givers?
Following twelve years of comprehensive and diverse research in the areas of therapeutic riding (TR) and equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), Dr. Anne Barnfield, Brescia Associate Professor, Psychology, concludes that – similar to work with dogs – equine riding and therapy renders positive results in affecting the mental and physical health of its participants – specifically those with developmental disorders and trauma.
As an Experiential Psychologist, Dr, Barnfield explains her motivation behind her study of this non-traditional form of therapy, stating, “All psychological research seeks to further our understanding of the mind and human behaviour. Any activity which has beneficial effects for the person is something which we should study and attempt to understand, to see its utility and to further its application.” She goes on to say, “I feel that the areas of research regarding TR and EAP are important because they show that certain activities, perhaps viewed as merely ‘fun’ or as peripheral, being non-mainstream forms of therapy, are actually tremendously helpful.”
In 2009, Brescia student Andrea Carey – guided by Dr. Barnfield – conducted an independent study project at a summer camp at SARI Therapeutic Riding, a program which provides specialized support and adapted riding programmes to children with special needs. The study’s intention was to understand the incidental and implicit benefits of therapeutic riding for children with and without disabilities, within a week-long camp setting. This research was continued in 2010 by fourth-year Brescia student Sarah Murray and Dr. Barnfield, but was shifted to focus on children only receiving one lesson per week.
Results from both studies were presented at the Horses in Education and Therapy International (HETI) conference in Athens, Greece in 2012. These results indicated that participants received many incidental benefits, including a rise in self-esteem, confidence, social skills, and positive emotions. These traits were especially observed in children with special needs. A lesser effect was seen with those participating in the weekly sessions, as compared to daily at summer camp.
In 2016, Dr. Barnfield partnered again with SARI to study the effects of a number of equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions for military veterans. As anticipated, the EAP resulted in beneficial effects for participants. Findings were that on all measures participants showed improvements: EAP increased positive and decreased negative emotions, increased self-esteem and decreased experience of PTSD symptoms.
“Based on this specific study, it appears that the qualities of the horse, and the more ‘holistic’ approach of EAP, helps the healing process for PTSD sufferers,” explains Dr. Barnfield. “This type of therapy appears to be particularly appropriate for those in service, as it is conducted in a more open environment and involves a perceived non-judgmental partner (the horse) as an intermediary for expressing feelings.”
As a result of her involvement in this field of research, in 2020 Dr. Barnfield helped to create a set of ethical guidelines for those providing services in equine therapy fields and for animal welfare in such situations, entitled “HETI Ethics: Service provider ethical guidelines & Equine welfare ethical guidelines.”
To demonstrate the need for unconventional forms of therapy, Dr. Barnfield is committed to advancing this research. She explains, “Further research will aid in the understanding of the positive contributions of TR and EAP to both physical and mental health, and thus improve our application of these forms of therapy. Currently, therapeutic riding is not covered under traditional healthcare and most insurance coverage, but many benefit from this form of therapy. It is my hope that as further tangible insights come to light, more people will have the ability to pursue this transformative therapy, which truly connects the mind, body and spirit.”
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Brescia University College, Canada’s women’s university college, is affiliated with Western University. The 1,600 women registered as either full- or part-time students at Brescia study a wide variety of subjects in the Schools of Behavioural & Social Sciences, Food & Nutritional Sciences, Humanities, and Leadership & Social Change in an empowering, compassionate, student-centred and invigorating environment. Degrees are granted by Western. As a Catholic University College, Brescia welcomes students from all backgrounds and values diversity. For more current and archived news, a listing of faculty experts, and photos please visit our Online Media Room, at brescia.uwo.ca/communications/media_relations.