Equine Assisted Activities and Experiential Education

By Kirsten Kindt, AEE Director of Member Services, membership@aee.org

Recently I went to the local art house to see Horse Boy. http://www.horseboymovie.com/Film.php. It is a personal film that invites viewers to let their guards down and face the challenges in their own lives with an open heart. The film tells the story of one family’s experience with autism.

For many years the Isaacson family (father Rupert, mother Kristin and 6 year old son Rowan) lived with Rowan’s tantrums and inability to socialize or communicate effectively. It shook the strength of their foundation.

After discovering that Rowan calms down when on horseback, Rupert, an international activist and journalist, decides to take the family to Mongolia. He sets a goal for his family to be on horseback as much as possible and to meet with Shamans for advice, inspiration, treatment, and possibly even find a cure for Rowan’s autism. Thus the family embarks on a difficult and adventurous experience that ultimately leads to worthy results.

The movie was powerful in displaying that life lessons can be learned when one is open to new experiences and willing to break out of typical patterns of coping. Together the family leaves their routine behind and they head straight into new challenges as well as new surpises and strengths.  They adapt, they find healing.  By the end of their travels, Rowan has control of his bowels for the first time in his life. He also plays interactively with other children in ways more suitable than ever before. His parent’s are hopeful about his future and theirs.

I did some research and discovered that the “magic” of working with horses is real and known in the experiential education community. And AEE has experts in this field willing to share what they know with the community.

The experts I learned from:

Two membership organizations with lots of information:

Other good sources of information:

From Tracy Weber, AEE member Tracy Weber with Kaleidoscope Learning Circle and Northwood University, Michigan State University and Prescott College

From Tracy I learned that horses are special and working with them is a powerful form of experiential education.

“One of the key elements behind equine assisted learning is that horses are a prey animal and we are predators – horses cannot afford to ignore predatory nonverbal communication because in the wild they would have been eaten. This ability to be highly sensitive to their environment helps horses read and often mirror human behavior.”

And thus, said Tracy, “Horses provide vast opportunities for metaphorical learning.”

Horses live in herds where every member is valued. They have an understood power dynamic or “pecking order” that is not determined by the size of the horse, but rather by their ability to be a good leader. This awareness allows horses to pick up on human behavior, however subtle. How a person shows up is picked up intuitively by the horses.  Where people have integrity and are congruent with themselves – the horse will be at ease as well. Where a person is not congruent – the horse will be able to mirror anxiety or emotions back to them.

“It is life changing because significant ‘ah ha’ moments arise from working with horses,” said Tracy. Her work is in the area of team development, communication, professional development and personal growth for corporations and groups of all kinds.

For example, “A CEO participated in an activity where professionals were given roles opposite of what they do. The CEO micro-manages so she was instructed to just observe. She couldn’t do it. Her interaction with the horses in the herd and the people she managed unraveled.” These experiences are designed to help groups break out of patterns. They are able to look at dynamics differently. These types of activities are not always fun, often challenging, but in a safe environment learning can take place.
The cross-over with AEE methodology and equine assisted learning is strong and Tracy has presented at AEE conferences in the past. “I found out about experiential education in my Master’s program. I studied horses and healing and that became part of my Ph.D. program. I learned how to enhance adult learning to effect organizational behavior and change.”

From Shannon Knapp, Horse Sense of the Carolinas, horsesensetherapy.com and horsesenselearning.com

Shannon works with adjudicated youth and horses help her accomplish a safer environment for learning. “Working with horses allows a client to experience learning in their bones, not just in their heads,” said Shannon. “Changing their physical behavior must happen in order for them to change the horse’s behavior. Each pairing of youth and horse is different and the learning comes about in profound and individual ways.”

Shannon is very interested in the research and found that autism is related to damage to mirror neurons. “Horses are easy for autistic individuals to feel comfortable with,” said Shannon, “because horses do not have expectations. Clients learn this by hanging out with the animals. They feel safe. They are not being judged. We can help them recognize body language and facial clues in settings that are non-threatening.”

To learn more, Shannon recommends a very good source of information (and a great starting point) as the author Temple Grandin, and her first book, Animal in Translation.  The author herself is autistic, has a Ph.D. and has written five books. Her basic premise is that animals and autistic people think in terms of visuals not in sentences. There is a direct connection with autistic people and horses or animals. They process the world in similar ways. They think in images.

“When traditional therapy has not worked,” said Shannon, “oftentimes Equine Assisted Growth and Learning can be used successfully to help clients realize change.”

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2 Responses to “Equine Assisted Activities and Experiential Education”


  1. 1 Sarah Schlote January 9, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Just wanted to draw your attention to my website, The Natural Connection, which is one of the most comprehensive sites to date focusing on the fields of animal-, equine- and nature-assisted interventions (such as wilderness and adventure therapy).

    For more info: http://www.thenaturalconnection.ca

  2. 2 Broallbackuro January 25, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    Hello.This article was really fascinating, particularly since I was looking for thoughts on this topic last Friday.


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