Daman Johnson and his daughter Kali participate in PATH to Success at WSU.
(Photos by Phyllis Erdman, WSU College of Education)
PULLMAN, Wash. – A horse is a horse, of course. Its also a good teacher.
Horses in Washington State Universitys PATH to Success
program helped one dad, who admits to a short fuse, learn to start out gently when he asks his children to do something. Horses helped a mom remember to let her son make his own choices.
PATH to Success is an equine-assisted learning program directed at healthy youth development. When parents evaluate it, they tend to talk of wisdom gained. Researchers studying the programs impact on children echo one young participants appraisal: “Awesome!
The program is the brainchild of Phyllis Erdman, an expert in family counseling and associate dean of the WSU College of Education, and Sue Jacobson, who coordinates the College of Veterinary Medicines People-Pet Partnership
. They designed PATH to Success to test their theory that working with horses would increase childrens social competence.
For example, Erdman said, horse handling teaches communication skills.
“Its harder to communicate with horses because they cant understand you, so you have to rely on clear messages, good listening and body language, she said. “You also have to be assertive with horses, so they will acknowledge you as their leader, but not aggressive because that would scare them.
Research confirms success
PATH to Success is the focus of a two-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health to examine the programs effects on both social interactions and stress levels among fifth- through eighth-grade children. The principal investigator on the study is WSUs Patricia Pendry, assistant professor of human development, who will present preliminary findings at the March 30 Academic Showcase
Pendry and graduate student Stephanie Roeter gathered information on 64 children who participated in PATH to Success in fall 2010, as well as on children on a waiting list for the program. They compared how each group was faring at the beginning and the end of the 11-week session.
“The results are extremely exciting, said Pendry. “Parents reported significantly more social competence self-awareness, social awareness, goal-directed behavior and the like in kids who had completed the program.
Childrens social skills improved regardless of their gender, age, beginning levels of social competence or whether they were referred by school counselors, Pendry said. The researchers are analyzing data from a second group of participants.
Involving parents, too
WSUs Sue Jacobson helps a young rider.
PATH to Success, which started as a pilot program in 2008, is an extension of WSUs Palouse Area Therapeutic Horsemanship program for people with disabilities.
“The program has grown and were offering it four days a week for Pullman and Moscow kids, a total of 32 kids each semester, said Erdman. “An exciting addition was last year was the summer session, which we call PATH to Success: A Shared Journey. In it, we work with parent/child teams to strengthen their relationship and worked toward shared goals.
While PATH to Success involves some horseback riding, most of the lessons are done with participants feet on the ground. In the summer session, parents and kids learn that, if they want a horse to move, they should work with it in phases.
“You start with pushing him gently with your finger and just touching his hair, Erdman said. “If he doesnt move, you increase to pushing harder and touching skin, then muscle, then bone.
That was the lesson that convinced the short-fused dad to start with calm requests instead of demands. The lesson also showed kids what it means to be responsible for their own behavior, said Erdman.
“Horses learn they have choices, Erdman said. “They can either move with the gentle touch or they can choose not to, and then they get a harder touch as a consequence.
One mom who went through the program with her son said, “I learned to let him make choices, and that was hard for me
letting go of control.
PATH to Success: A Shared Journey will be offered again this summer with parent/child teams focusing on more targeted skills, such as how to offer encouragement and make choices. Family members will lead the horses through obstacle courses, among other activities.
“Well continue our program every spring and fall semester, working with area schools to get information to prospective children and parents, Erdman said. “We hope to add a component that will focus on children with special needs. For example, were hoping we can determine what it is about the relationship with a horse that apparently benefits children on the autistic spectrum.
Jacobson said that she, Erdman and Pendry are pleased that the program builds on WSUs reputation as the home of the human-animal bond, defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. Study of the human-animal bond was pioneered by Leo Bustad
, founder of the People-Pet Partnership.