The child whisperer: NDSU professor uses equine therapy to help children
A North Dakota State University professor is using horses to help modify the behavior of children with troubled backgrounds, and it seems to be working.
Erika Berg, an assistant professor for NDSU’s equine studies program, has teamed up with the child care facility, Home on the Range, near Sentinel Butte. She has collected data since 2008 that could provide evidence that equine-assisted therapy can help children better than traditional therapy, according to a release.
“I’ve seen that my entire life that I’ve been involved with it, just all of these incredible things that are happening,” Berg said. “But we need to figure out a way to document that so it can be validated with the medical community … for different acceptance for an alternative treatment, but one that works.”
Using horses in mental health treatment is a field of study that is relatively new, Berg said. It is something that has been developed in the past 15 years. She has been involved with equine science for 20 years, and when she got to NDSU in 2008, she wanted to try to find a way to use her love for horses to help others.
The study begins when Berg and Home on the Range employees assess children admitted to the facility. The researchers identify children with negative or problematic behaviors — such as lying, aggression and defiance — directed toward their surroundings, Berg said.
Berg studies children ages 12-19 for 12 weeks, though the students stay in the program for the duration of their stay, said Mike Gooch, Home on the Range clinical director. The facility with a working ranch has had horse classes for students, but there has never been anything this extensive.
“It was more of meet once a week and do something with the kids,” Gooch said. “We have developed that and structured it, and designed some program outcomes with the help of Erika. We have really taken it to the next level.”
The study compares those tendencies to before and after their time in the program. Berg also compares the results to students that go through traditional therapy, such as talking with a therapist.
Children spend three hours with horses three nights a week, Gooch said. The classes range from observing the animals to grooming. The students, if they feel comfortable, may even try their skills at riding around the arena.
“We have kids that are really scared to death of horses,” Gooch said. “We had one girl that came in and she wouldn’t even get into the pasture with the horses. Now she rides.”
The preliminary results indicate behaviors were normalized in all areas, Berg said, adding they saw less of a dramatic change for those in traditional therapy.
“Our preliminary outcomes look really good,” he said, adding researches are still collecting data to analyze.
“The kids, they are put in a position where they have to make decisions and they run that group themselves,” he added.
The program has come a long ways, Gooch said. Laura Feldmann, a clinical social worker at the facility, has also helped with the study and will speak on it at the National Association of Social Workers Conference in July in Washington, D.C.
“I think the work that is being done at Home on the Range is outstanding,” Berg said.
The treatment is not for everyone and can be expensive, Berg said. Horses require maintenance, housing and feeding. But it is therapy that should be considered.
“It’s certainly not for everyone,” she said. “But for those individuals it is appropriate for, the benefits are quite remarkable.”
Gooch said they should finish up the study by the end of the year, but he hopes to continue the program.
“This program has really become a signature program here,” Gooch said, adding Berg’s assistance has been phenomenal.
“We would like this program to be something that we can replicated and possibly be tweaked to be used with other populations, such as kids with trauma or depression,” he said.