Social workers and other behavioral health providers interested in adjunctive interventions are looking more to animal-assisted interventions to improve client mental and physical health. Although equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) are increasing in popularity, limited research examines EAAT as a modality for improving child/youth well-being, while also exploring the impact of EAAT on the family. This study aims to use mixed methods to explore parental perceptions of participation in EAAT on children’s behavior and family well-being and identify elements of EAAT contributing to improvements in these outcomes.
Parents (n=21) of children with disabilities receiving EAAT services and a PATH-certified EAAT instructor (n=1) participated in interviews, which were conducted in a private space at an EAAT facility. Parents were asked to describe their impressions of their children’s experiences with EAAT and any impacts on behavior and family well-being. Similarly, an instructor was interviewed about her observations of the effects of EAAT on children. Interviews were approximately 45 minutes in length, were audio-recorded, and transcribed verbatim. Parents also completed the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a reliable and valid measure of children’s emotional symptoms, conduct, hyperactivity, social skills, and relationships with peers.
Transcripts were analyzed using Nvivo software to conduct open coding of themes. The research team analyzed the interviews using a three-step approach. In the first step, each researcher read the same interview and separately developed a set of codes. The team then met to achieve consensus on the codes and developed the codebook. In the second step, researchers coded the transcripts individually and cross-checked their coded transcripts with other members of the research team. As novel codes emerged, they were added to the codebook, and codes that were redundant were condensed. During the final step of analysis, the research team analyzed the codes and developed themes from the codes that were used repeatedly across interviews. Survey data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and were compared with national norms.
Themes elicited from codes related to 1) physical benefits, including gross motor control and core muscle strength; 2) emotional benefits, including reduced anxiety and improved self-confidence, and 3) family well-being. Survey data indicated that children served by the program had greater difficulty with emotional symptoms, conduct, hyperactivity, social skills, and peer relationships than the general population.
Conclusions and Implications
The current findings add to the EAAT knowledge base by giving a voice to parents of children receiving services. Survey data point to the stressors that children with disabilities and their parents face. Yet, the interview data reveal that parents perceive great physical and emotional benefits of EAAT for their children and some reduction in family stress. Results suggest that, while further research is needed to more definitively understand the impact of EAAT on child/youth and family well-being, social workers interested in using EAAT with children and youth might focus outcomes on both the child and family holistically, aiming for improved emotional and physical health, as well as reduced family stress.