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Equine-Assisted Therapy: Not A One-Trick Pony By: Bailey Pees

The sound of beating hooves on the concrete floor and the smell of fresh sawdust is enough to make any horse lover overwhelmed with joy.

Individuals seeking equine-assisted therapy may have never known that the horse barn would bring them so much solace, but born-and-raised horse lovers have always felt there was something special to be shared with the rest of the world.

Holly Jedlicka, a lifelong horse lover, decided it was her turn to share the love.

In 2006, Jedlicka cofounded PBJ Connections, an equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) facility in Pataskala, Ohio, that follows the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association (Eagala) model of therapy.

PBJ Connections offers mock sessions for individuals wanting to learn about the experinece of equine-assisted pyschotherapy.

Jedlicka said the Eagala model allows an individual to externalize their problems onto the horse and the environment. These problems may include anything from children dealing with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to veterans experiencing post-tramatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a prey animal, the horse responds to what the individual is externalizing. These responses may include the horse swatting its tail or walking away completely, but PBJ Connections’ mental health specialists help the client process all situations and issues.

“My dad, to this day, will tell you that he’s pretty sure horses kept me out of trouble,” Jedlicka said.

MAKING AN IMPACT

PBJ Connections has grown tremendously since its beginning and has started partnering with other organizations to reach a wider range of individuals, such as first responders and veterans, through EAP.

“That experience is always powerful,” Jedlicka said. “There’s so much trauma walking in, but it’s an amazing experience to see these men let themselves fall apart and start to deal with their trauma because of some interaction that they’re having with a horse.”

Katie Fitzsimmons, an equine specialist and mental health specialist intern, graduated from Otterbein University with a degree in equine science and is working on her master’s degree in social work at The Ohio State University.

Fitzsimmons has also had the opportunity to experience these incredible breakthroughs.

“Whether I’m a mental health specialist, in the role, or an equine specialist, knowing that we were able to provide a space for that person to make that type of growth is really rewarding and so cool to watch,” Fitzsimmons said.

PBJ Connections has also started incorporating new programs like expressive arts groups. These activities have been facilitated throughout the community and in partnership with some schools. Programs like this can reach more individuals, which allows PBJ Connections to take their mission statement to the next level.

“Most of the treatments that we’re doing are very experiential, so the client is actually doing something and not just talking about doing something,” Jedlicka said. “Expressive arts [are] just another way to facilitate that.”

Even with all of these impactful programs, quantifying the success rate of individual experiences can be difficult. Some individuals attend a few sessions and then never come back or reach out again, which is a common trend for someone seeking out mental health therapy, Jedlicka said.

On the other hand, PBJ Connections offers a 10-week school program and a six-week substance abuse program, both of which allow for easier and more obtainable feedback.

Jedlicka said, “That feedback is always very positive.”

THE WAY THINGS WORK

Some individuals worry about the risks involved with working so closely with horses, but Jedlicka offers another perspective.

The Eagala model requires a code of ethics and a partnership between a licensed mental health provider and an equine specialist, so no one is working alone during a session. In addition, there is no riding involved. This allows for a very safe way of working around horses, Jedlicka said.

When someone comes to PBJ Connections with a diagnosable mental illness, specific treatment goals are set to fit their needs. The mental health specialists then measure the client’s progress throughout his or her sessions with the horses. This information is documented every time the specialist sees the client, Jedlicka said.

As a mental health specialist intern, Fitzsimmons also has a case load of her own.

Fitzsimmons said the goals are specifically tailored to each client based on their presumptive symptoms and chief complaints. A mental diagnosis is a way for mental health specialists to summarize all of the symptoms the client is presenting.

"We don’t like to put anybody in a cookie-cutter mold, but instead give more of an individualistic treatment," Fitzsimmons said.

Clients have the opportunity of working with props and expressing their emotions through a multitude of activities.

Jedlicka said mental health specialists constantly evaluate clients by asking themselves things like were they more authentic? Was their anxiety lower? Was their demeanor brighter?

As an equine specialist, Fitzsimmons also finds herself reading the horse’s body language in order to keep everyone safe.

“The horses can’t talk,” Fitzsimmons said. “They can only tell us what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling through their actions, so it’s really important, as an equine specialist, to interpret that in the best way possible.”

OHIO STATE’S INVOLVEMENT

Before cofounding PBJ Connections, Jedlicka worked in the equine industry, but she didn’t feel like she was doing enough to help others. She taught therapeutic riding for two years, until she realized she had a stronger interest in the mental health aspect of equine-assisted therapy.

That’s when Jedlicka decided to take a leap of faith. In 2003, she went back to school at Ohio State to get her master’s degree in social work so she could nally become a mental health specialist.

While Jedlicka was attending Ohio State, she met associate professor Kimberly Cole, Ph.D.

Cole teaches an equine-assisted therapy course to undergraduate and graduate students that exhibits an overview of different modalities dealing with this type of experience.

Cole said the course isn’t meant for students to focus on a particular modality, but the Eagala model does tend to be a popular topic. Although therapeutic riding is evaluated and discussed, it’s more convenient for the course experiences to revolve around ground-based work.

The ground model, or Eagala model, tends to be a common practice because it recognizes that some horses may not be suitable for riding but may have other purposes.

Horses tend to be mirrors for people, in the sense that they reflect emotions, feelings and actions. Cole once heard someone say it’s hard to see the mirror when you’re sitting on it.

Through mock sessions, students have the opportunity to rotate through each role which includes acting as a client, equine specialist and mental health specialist.

“We also discuss different client populations and how equine-assisted activities and therapies can be beneficial for those groups,” Cole said.

The experience that has impacted Cole the most came from a researcher in Texas. This specific case study was about a toddler who couldn’t walk, due to a physical disability. After experiencing just six 20-minute sessions of equine-assisted therapy, the toddler successfully began walking.

“We don’t like to put anybody in a cookie-cutter mold, but instead give more of an individualistic treatment.”

Cole said it’s very beneficial for people to hear success stories and to realize that equine-assisted therapy isn’t just utilized from a therapy standpoint, but also as a team building and leadership training experience.

A company based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has previously rented Ohio State’s facility and horses for their corporate leadership training.

PBJ Connections also works with The James Cancer Center, about once a quarter, to facilitate equine-assisted activities for cancer patients, survivors, families and those who have lost loved ones.

These sessions allow people to experience situations and emotions they may never experience otherwise.

Cole said, “I think utilizing [equine- assisted activities] in that way will also help promote its value as a potential therapeutic activity.”

Created By
Bailey Pees
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Emily Reed