“I discovered that there are many things that can make you feel proud of yourself. I will use the strategies [I learned] of pushing myself past my comfort zone.” – Group 5 Participant
Building Internal Resilience Through Horses core program evaluation focused on:
- Assessing changes in participants’ resiliency and mental health outcomes following the program;
- Understanding participants’ experiences within the program and the program’s role in the observed outcomes (process research).
Key outcomes included indicators of resilience (emotion regulation, sense of mastery, sense of relatedness) and indicators of mental health (depressive and post-traumatic symptoms). These outcomes were assessed using standardized scales validated for use with youth and widely used for assessing their respective indicators.
Research results indicate that Building Internal Resilience Through Horses is a promising approach to building internal resilience in young women who are survivors of interpersonal trauma. To view a presentation by program partners of research results, go here.
The program elicited consistently high attendance rates, with 77% of the participants attending over half of the EAL sessions; when participants did miss sessions, it was primarily due to life circumstances. This suggests that most participants found the program appealing, accessible, and worthwhile. Indeed, 72 to 98% of the participants (depending on the session) rated their experience as mostly or very helpful. The unique value of learning with horses was regularly expressed in the participants’ comments:
- “[The horses] taught me things I thought I could never learn. The horses are exceptional teachers.”
- “Having a grasp on leading the horse without feeling any sense of doubt – I can apply what I learned today to my personal life.”
Most participants (70 to 85%, depending on the session) also reported gaining new knowledge, skills, and insights from their EAL experiences, including emotional awareness, grounding strategies, empathy, boundary setting, confidence, leadership, connection, and self-care:
- “I learned how to look at my emotions and had the horses help with understanding them.”
- “[I am] learning from the horses to release all the overwhelming emotions, not to hold it in.”
- “The horses taught me so much in so little time. The horses taught me about how to help and understand personal space and respect others space.”
- “I learned that I have needs and they can be met, and I’m not selfish for thinking that.”
- “[I learned] that I can impact my own wellness in positive ways. Small changes can make big differences.”
- “Today, I felt very courageous/proud. I felt this way because I learned how to say no, which is difficult.”
- “Today’s session was very good. It made me feel like the boss and confident. I felt strong and completed.”
- “[I learned that] I can still trust even after having my trust broken a lot.”
“[I will] never look at horses the same again.” – Champion Day Participant
Consistent with these themes, the outcome measures showed significant improvements in participants’ resiliency indicators, including increased emotional awareness and adaptability, stronger sense of personal mastery, and improved interpersonal and relational skills. Many of these improvements were sustained over the long term at 1-month, 6-month, and for some core competencies even at 12-month follow-up, suggesting that the skills taught in the program are lasting and transferable.
Changes in the outcomes were directly linked to participants’ engagement and experiences in the program, lending more confidence in attributing those changes to the effects of the program. Participants who attended more EAL sessions, and who reported deriving more satisfaction, learning, and value from the activities, showed greater improvements in their resiliency indicators, and experienced less decline in their mental health indicators after the program. These positive outcomes were not realized for participants who attended fewer EAL sessions and who reported getting less value out of the program.
Changes in the outcomes were stronger for resiliency indicators than for mental health indicators. This finding is in line with the nature and goals of the EAL approach, which was intended to be a strength-building community-based program for developing resiliency skills and mindsets. Resilience is not the same as the absence of posttraumatic symptomology; it is the capacity for resourcefulness that can co-exist with, and facilitate coping with the adverse consequences of trauma. Many of the program participants had clinical levels of depressive symptoms at the start of the program. Although the program by itself was not sufficient to alleviate these mental-health issues, the boost to resilience capacity provided by the program might empower participants to seek further support. It is important to provide additional services for individuals with acute mental-health concerns.
Overall, research showed that the program met its primary objective of building core internal resiliency competencies, at least among those participants who found value in this approach. However, not all participants had equally valuable experiences, and not all participants showed equally positive outcomes following the program. This suggests that Building Internal Resilience Through Horses – like any program – is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Health and wellbeing following trauma are complex and multi-determined outcomes. It is essential to build capacity for a diverse range of programs and supports for individuals, families, and communities.