• Celia Caraccioli (left) and Meredith Rollins stand with Emilie Ross (right), an applied behavior analyst who works at R.O.C.K., and Shandy, one of the ponies the center uses to provide equine-assisted therapy to children. (Photo by Elizabeth Stewart)

In recent years, horses have become increasingly popular as therapy animals. Like dogs, horses provide companionship to children diagnosed with a variety of physical and mental disabilities.

However, the real reason parents continue to bring their children to equine-assisted therapy centers is because they see improvements in their children’s conditions. Equine-assisted therapy works. How and why it works, however, is hard to define.

For the past five years, psychology professor Jacquie Muir-Broaddus and Southwestern psychology students have partnered with the R.O.C.K., Ride on Center For Kids in Georgetown, a facility that offers therapeutic horse-riding services, to help answer that question. Each year they approach the problem from a different angle, focus on a different group of children, and implement different research methods. This year’s project has focused primarily on children with autism spectrum disorders.

“All kinds of people go to the time and energy and pay the money because they see the difference it makes, but it’s been really hard to document using standard research measures,” Muir-Broaddus said. “I think it’s in part because people come in with such a wide range of issues, it’s hard for any one measure to show a statistically significant improvement for the group as a whole.”

The experimental design this year consisted of a longitudinal study that took place over 14 weeks. In collaboration with Emilie Ross, the board-certified applied behavior analyst responsible for doing the therapy with the children in the study, senior psychology major Meredith Rollins and junior psychology and education double major Celia Caraccioli attended therapy sessions and took weekly assessments of students’ functioning. This way, they were able to create a picture over time of exactly how students with autism spectrum disorder were improving. Additionally, parents filled out questionnaires at different points during the 14 weeks in order to contribute their own impressions of their children’s improvement.

Although the data-gathering portion of the study is over, Rollins and Caraccioli are currently analyzing their data and will present their findings at the Student Works Symposium April 8.

Parent interviews provide a valuable source of data, and although the results of any one study cannot always be generalized to the children in another, previous experiments have found that parents tend to describe their children who undergo therapy at R.O.C.K. as more calm, engaged and communicative than they were beforehand. There’s also preliminary evidence that riding horses at R.O.C.K. makes it easier for some children to sleep at night.

“Each year it’s giving us a bigger picture, and helping us further refine our measures,” Muir-Broaddus said. “Each year we try to get a better handle on what it is about this therapy that’s making a difference, so that eventually, ultimately, instead of being considered an alternative therapy it would be considered a standard therapy where insurance would reimburse you.”

Southwestern’s relationship with R.O.C.K. began when the center reached out to several faculty members to see if there was an opportunity for collaboration. The center also partners with other universities, including Texas A&M and Baylor. “As an institution that’s one of their goals: to collaborate and research as well as perform the therapy,” Muir-Broaddus said.

This collaboration is providing R.O.C.K. with sound scientific research to document what they do, and is also giving college students the opportunity to do research in a real-world setting, while attempting to solve a real-world problem. “It’s got all the benefits of a regular research project, but in addition to that I think it’s neat that they’re out in the community as opposed to with college students in a lab,” Muir-Broaddus said.

For Meredith Rollins, who wants to go into healthcare after graduation, performing research at R.O.C.K. is an opportunity to gain hands-on experience working with people with disabilities and their families. It’s also an opportunity for civic engagement. “I’m interested in going into the medical field and I had done an internship with physical therapy my sophomore year… and I love working with children,” Rollins said. “Research in the lab has many advantages, but you can’t interact with people naturally like you can out in the community. It feels like we are making a difference in peoples’ lives in addition to conducting our research. We’re volunteers at R.O.C.K. as well as research interns.”

The research skills that Rollins and Caraccioli honed at R.O.C.K. this year will help them when applying to graduate school, and the experience has familiarized them with not only what it means to have a disorder such as autism, but also what it means to be a therapist for children with these issues.

“It gives them the skills they’re going to need in grad school, and it’s giving them the skills that grad schools are looking for,” Muir-Broaddus said. “R.O.C.K. has speech language pathologists, physical therapists, applied behavior analysts, and you get to see what these different professionals do in a therapeutic setting, so I think that’s really valuable too.”

Southwestern’s partnership with R.O.C.K. is constantly evolving, and Muir-Broaddus hopes that eventually this collaboration will produce a scientifically verified picture of how exactly equine-assisted therapy benefits the children who use it. “The idea is that horses themselves are really therapeutic animals, because a horse is nonjudgmental, and when you ride a horse it responds to you so there’s a lot of cause and effect. It’s not fully understood yet, but this is helping kids to participate in society like everybody else.”

Although Muir-Broaddus and her team may not have found all the answers yet, working with R.O.C.K. has given Rollins and Caraccioli a valuable opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom while giving back to the Georgetown community, and the complexity of the problem at hand is good training for the complexity of the problems that they will deal with in their careers.

“I’m getting some great experience interacting with children and their families and I’ve loved getting to watch their improvement over time,” Rollins said. “I want to go into the medical field to be able to make an impact on peoples’ lives and be able to help them.”

−       Elizabeth Stewart ’14