Research indicates that animal-assisted therapies may improve well-being for people who have experienced trauma. Although most of this research involves dogs, a few studies examine the effectiveness of equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) with promising results (Naste et al., 2018). This study evaluates an EAAT intervention with children who have experienced trauma and their caregivers. We hypothesized that participating children would report improved emotional competence and fewer negative, abuse-related self-perceptions and attributions. We hypothesized that parents would improve in perceived resilience, parenting knowledge and skills, and social support.
Children and caregivers were referred for participation in the EAAT program by social service agencies and law enforcement based on reports of exposure to trauma. All families who chose to participate in the program were invited to complete measures at pretest and posttest.
Children participated in a 7-week psycho-educational EAAT Intervention, Resilience Reins, which aims to improve children’s competencies and perceptions in the areas of Communication, Security, Identity. All sessions include unmounted work with horses. While children participated in the Resilience Reins program, caregivers participated in the Parent Café, a six-week psycho-educational series that aimed to give parents/caregivers information on key protective factors and engage in meaningful conversations with others surrounding parenting. Caregivers joined their children for the final session of the Resilience Reins curriculum.
Children and their caregivers were administered measures at pretest and posttest. Children (n=73) completed the Children’s Attributions and Perceptions Scale (CAPS), a reliable and valid measure of symptoms associate with exposure to trauma (Mannarino, Cohen, & Berman, 1994). This instrument consists of four subscales: Feeling Different From Peers, Personal Attributions for Negative Events, Perceived Credibility, and Interpersonal Trust. Caregivers (n=52) completed the Protective Factors Survey (PFS), a reliable and valid measure of protective factors in five areas: family functioning/resiliency, social support, concrete support, nurturing and attachment, and knowledge of parenting/child development (Counts et al., 2010).
Caregivers provided demographic information and trauma histories for participating children. Among children for whom demographic data were available, 56% were girls, 81% were white, 12.5% were African American, and 6.3% were Latinx. Caregivers identified children’s exposure to the following traumatic experiences: bullying, domestic violence and physical abuse, substance abuse, suicide attempts, sexual abuse, incarceration of parent, and death of a parent. The most commonly reported traumatic events were physical abuse and sexual abuse.
Paired samples t-tests were used to examine the data for changes over time on the CAPS and PFS subscales. The results indicated improvement on two CAPS scales, with children reporting lower scores for feeling different from their peers and higher scores for interpersonal trust at posttest. Caregivers’ scores improved significantly for all PFS scales.
Conclusions and Implications
While further research using more controlled research designs is needed, the present study suggests that EAAT interventions focusing on children and caregivers hold promise for social workers and other mental health professionals aiming to reduce symptoms of trauma among children and improve parenting knowledge, skills, and supports.