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On January 12, 2009 the article below was featured in the “U of R Reporter”

“Horses part of addiction recovery”

Darlene Chalmers is part of a community-based research team studying how horses can assist in the healing of First Nations youth who abuse solvents.

Chalmers, a member of the Faculty of Social Work (Saskatoon Campus), has been involved for the past year in the collaborative project examining the effect of Equine
Assisted Learning (EAL). The team members are from the University of Saskatchewan, White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Center, Cartier Equine Learning Center and the Youth Solvent Addiction Committee.

Horses, she explains, have been used in therapeutic contexts for decades. The research team will evaluate whether EAL contributes to the residential treatment and the biological, psychological, social and spiritual healing of the First Nations youth who are participating, and to what extent.

“As prey animals, horses are constantly attuned to their surroundings and the subtle communication within the herd as a response to ever-changing environments,” explains Chalmers. “The horse has the ability to respond intuitively to human behavior and intent, which can result in instant feedback from the animal, providing opportunities for a person to interact through thinking about and responding to the horse.”

The study will look at youth receiving treatment at the White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Center, which is located on the Sturgeon Lake First Nation near Prince Albert.

White Buffalo has partnered with the Cartier Equine Centre to provide EAL as part of their treatment program.

Chalmers explains that many of the young people who enter treatment centres have experienced adverse life conditions, including histories of abuse, and as a result often have difficulty bonding with both individuals and the community because of a lack of trust in others and themselves. Through the Cartier EAL program, youth are given an opportunity to develop and test relationships with the horses, with the intent that this learning transfers to other areas of their lives.

The Cartier EAL Centre’s educational program does not involve riding but focuses on ground work with the horse. The youth engage in structured, facilitator-led sessions that include constant feedback related to their experience. The youth might, for example, ask the horse to move through an obstacle course specifically set up to create opportunities for problem solving. The youth often work as part of a team that always includes the horse.

“This emphasizes skill in communication and leadership, as the youth have to sort through problems with this non-human being that communicates only through its body language,” explains Chalmers. “It requires having to be attuned to the horse and the interaction that is occurring.”

The research team is developing an exploratory evaluation study to determine the effect of the equine program on the participating youth. After this is completed, the team will develop a longitudinal study to determine the relationship between people and horses in this context and what results from that.

“We are interested in the spiritual aspect of a connection with an animal, this particular animal, which is complex,” says Chalmers. “It’s difficult to describe and that’s the purpose and intent of this, too – to figure out what, how and to what extent.”

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