BOONE, N.C. — For the second consecutive summer, graduate students in Appalachian State University’s helping professions programs learned therapeutic techniques by working with a group of four-legged clients at Lazy Acres Farm in Morganton. According to Dr. Jill Van Horne, who led the intense, weeklong Equine Assisted Learning and Psychotherapy course, Appalachian is among only a handful of universities in the U.S. to offer such an opportunity.
“Due to the hands-on, experiential learning aspect of this course, students will be engaged more fully using a multisensory approach to learning,” said Van Horne, assistant professor in Appalachian’s Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling and director of the department’s professional school counseling master’s program.
Van Horne, who partnered with Beth Allen, equine specialist and owner of Lazy Acres Farm, to facilitate the class, said the horses were used specifically for their lack of bias. “Their only concern is always fight or flight,” Van Horne said. “Therefore, it is an ideal approach of modeling how therapeutic techniques ought to work with clientele from diverse backgrounds.”
“Also, equine assisted learning and psychotherapy is a unique, innovative approach to mental health therapy impacting clients in beneficial ways that other therapeutic approaches may not; therefore, students getting ready to enter into the profession will have information regarding this approach and have a greater self-awareness going into the field of helping professions,” she added.
Ten students in Appalachian’s clinical mental health counseling, professional school counseling, social work and marriage and family therapy master’s programs were enrolled in the course. Some students expressed they signed up for the course due to a desire to specialize in equine assisted therapy while other students said they plan to apply the concepts learned in the course in other types of counseling settings.
“I’m here because there is no one linear way to work with people,” said Calvin Craig, of Raleigh, who is pursuing his master’s degree in professional school counseling at Appalachian.
For alumna Jessica Crandell ’16, a graduate student in Appalachian’s clinical mental health counseling program from Knightdale, her end goal is to be an equine specialist, she said.
Through an exercise focused on observation and description, Van Horne said the students gained the skill of trust, but also the skill of describing a behavior without interpretation.
The format of lesson began with instructions, with an emphasis on safety, followed by observations in the arena with the horses. During the class activity, students were paired and stood at various locations within the arena. One partner was blindfolded while the other described what the horses were doing in the arena. A wrap-up through group discussion was held after the exercise.
“My hope is that students are able to apply concepts to clients, making our students better therapists,” Van Horne said. “Essentially they are transferring the skills from this experience to the profession.”
Hunter Adams, of Charlotte, who is a graduate student in the marriage and family therapy program at Appalachian, described her experience at the farm: “Today I was able to walk into a ring with a wild mustang who has only had human contact for a month.
“I learned a lot about being a therapist in this single interaction. I learned that even though I may want something to happen (pet the mustang), I’m not in charge. The mustang let me know when she was ready and then the connection was real and meaningful.
“Dropping my agenda allowed the interaction to be natural and made her (the mustang) more comfortable with me in her space. Today was a great day.”
Samantha Elam, a graduate student in the professional school counseling program from Greensboro, said, “At the beginning of the week, I was skeptical about the emotional impact this kind of therapy would have on a client. However, on the last day we were able to work with a real client on the issue of letting go and control.”
About graduate education at Appalachian
Appalachian State University’s Cratis D. Williams School of Graduate Studies helps individuals reach the next level in their career advancement and preparedness. The graduate school offers 70 master's and certificate programs in a range of disciplines, including doctoral programs in education (Ed.D.) and psychology (Psy.D.). Classes are offered at the main campus in Boone as well as online and face-to-face at locations around northwestern North Carolina. The graduate school enrolls nearly 1,800 students. Learn more at https://graduate.appstate.edu.
About the Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling
The Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling in Appalachian State University’s Reich College of Education is responsible for organizing and providing instructional programs in counseling and other human development functions for public schools, colleges and universities and various agencies. The department offers Master of Arts degrees in clinical mental health counseling, professional school counseling, college student development and marriage and family therapy. Learn more at https://hpc.appstate.edu.
About the Reich College of Education
Appalachian offers one of the largest undergraduate teacher preparation programs in North Carolina, graduating about 500 teachers a year. The Reich College of Education enrolls approximately 2,400 students in its bachelor's, master's, education specialist and doctoral degree programs. With so many teacher education graduates working in the state, there is at least one RCOE graduate teaching in every county in North Carolina. Learn more at https://rcoe.appstate.edu.
About Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System, Appalachian enrolls about 19,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.