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Heroes and Horses: Veteran and Equine Experiences with Equine Facilitated Learning and Therapy

By Karen Elizabeth Krob

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Equine-based programs with goals of helping Veterans and those involved in Veterans' lives are quickly gaining in number and popularity. A number of hypotheses exist as to why such programs might be effective, but what is the experience of those participating in such programs? Further, it is important to recognize not only the experiences of the human participants, but the experiences of the non-human animal counterparts, in this case the equines. The purpose of this project, therefore, was to explore the experiences of individuals involved in an equine-facilitated learning (EFL) and psychotherapy (EFP) program for veterans at a therapeutic riding center. Through heuristic research methodology, I focus specifically on the individual and shared experiences of 12 Veterans and 21 equines. Primary sources of data included observations and field notes of weekly classes over a period of seven months, photographs of classes, conversational interviews with Veterans, and reflections on my own experiences. These were supplemented with Veteran self-report intake and exit survey responses, discussions with the riding instructor and counselor, and volunteer observations. Veterans indicated that the horses, the shift away from traditional talk-therapy, and the opportunity to connect with other Veterans were the greatest draws of the program. They also felt participation in the program helped them become more mindful and improved their capacity for compassion toward themselves and others, their relationships, and their mood while on-site and off-site. All Veterans were mindful of their relationship with their equine partners and enjoyed finding connectedness, though the relationship seemed more central for some Veterans than for others. Equines tended to exhibit relaxed and engaged behaviors, with instances of apparent displeasure and discomfort typically associated with specific activities or passing moments, such as adjusting to an unfamiliar Veteran. One equine did not continue with the riding center, and two Veterans explicitly expressed concern regarding equine burnout. Outcomes support that equine-based models for Veterans have powerful transformative possibilities for all involved human participants - and potentially some equine participants. However, this experience also touches on a number of issues warranting further consideration, including the selection and maintenance of equines involved in such programs, and the centrality of the equines and human-equine bond.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Pages 376
Department Educational Psychology
Degree PhD
University University of Northern Colorado
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal-assisted activities
  2. Animal-assisted therapies
  3. Equine-assisted activities
  4. Hippotherapy
  5. Horses
  6. Mammals
  7. open access
  8. veterans
  1. open access