Does Equine Assisted Learning Create Emotionally Safe Learning Environments for At-Risk Youth?


  • Katie Cagle-Holtcamp Mississippi State University
  • Molly Christine Nicodemus Mississippi State University
  • Julie Parker Mississippi State University
  • Mattie Helen Dunlap Mississippi State University



equine assisted learning, emotional safety, at-risk youth, equine therapy


Equine assisted learning (EAL) is a form of experiential learning that is quickly growing in interest within the educational community. A challenge with experiential learning programs for at-risk youth is creating an emotionally safe environment that opens up the participants to learning. Nevertheless, EAL has been credited with the development of life skills in youth that promote educational achievement, but research tracking the development of emotional safety and learning, specifically associated with programming dedicated to educating participants about the horse, is limited. Therefore, the objective of this study was to determine if EAL, with programming centered around equine education, will promote emotional safety and learning in at-risk youth. Youth labeled as at-risk participated in a 4-week EAL session focused on teaching participants horse behavior, management, handling, and riding, while incorporating the 4 themes of emotional safety (self-esteem, personal security, respect, and connectivity). To determine participant learning of the equine topics covered, a pre- and post-program test was given to each participant. Acquirement of the themes of emotional safety was tracked for each participant using weekly debriefing interviews. While this was the first time to perform this assessment protocol for evaluating learning and emotional safety in at-risk youth, the completion rate for both forms of assessment utilized in this study was 100%. Evaluation of debriefing interview answers and test scores from the equine knowledge questions showed improvement by the end of the session in both equine knowledge and emotional safety, particularly as it relates to personal security. These results suggest EAL, with programming directed towards educating the participant about the horse, promotes emotional safety and learning for at-risk youth.

Author Biographies

Katie Cagle-Holtcamp, Mississippi State University

Animal Physiology, Graduate Teaching Assistant

Molly Christine Nicodemus, Mississippi State University

Associate Professor in Animal & Dairy Sciences Department

Julie Parker, Mississippi State University

Human Sciences, Chair of the Equine Assisted Therapy Program

Mattie Helen Dunlap, Mississippi State University

Humans Sciences, Undergraduate Researcher


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