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Horses for (university) courses: Psychology students can’t say neigh to unique learning experience

3 min read
07 Oct 2022
Horses.
Josh Kelly (UniSQ student), Julie Tom (Reason to Thrive business development manager), Dr Samantha Brown (UniSQ lecturer), Michelle Beatty (Reason to Thrive equine programs manager) and Sharni Ephraums (UniSQ student).
Horsing around will become serious business for a group of University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ) students who will soon start learning about the healing power of horses.

Up to six Master of Clinical Psychology students will volunteer at Reason to Thrive, a local not-for-profit organisation where qualified equine assisted learning (EAL) facilitators work alongside horses to improve the mental, physical and social wellbeing of vulnerable youth and women.

EAL provides personal development and life skills through experiential learning and psychosocial development.

UniSQ psychology lecturer Dr Samantha Brown said EAL was an emerging area of research with promising findings, especially for vulnerable clients with a history of trauma.

“For many people, the healing power of animals has been obvious for a long time. However, research is only just beginning to capture the impact of animals on human wellbeing,” Dr Brown said.

“Research tells us that EAL can help improve client wellbeing and increase hope, particularly for vulnerable groups where traditional talk therapy may not be appropriate.

“Working with horses can often help clients with a background of trauma develop a sense of empowerment and confidence that can then help them be ready to engage in more traditional forms of psychological intervention.”

The students, currently undertaking an internship at the University’s Ipswich Psychology and Counselling Clinic, will work with Reason to Thrive over the next six weeks as part of their final placement experience for the year.

They will observe and assist the facilitators and potentially provide support to clients.

Dr Brown said it was a valuable opportunity for the students to see how EAL programs assist the community.

“We are very excited to have our students connect with a local organisation providing an innovative service to vulnerable clients,” she said.

“I hope this will inspire future psychologists to work in this emerging area of wellbeing.”

Sharni Ephraums is one of the students participating in the exciting placement opportunity. She hoped it would open her eyes to a new level of healing and wellbeing.

“I’m looking forward to being outdoors with horses and engaging with clients away from a traditional clinical setting,” she said.

“I feel most calm and not stressed when cuddling a puppy, but I’m interested to see how a big and beautiful animal like a horse can provide a safe and stable environment for people.

“Equine assisted learning hasn’t been investigated a whole lot scientifically, so I’m keen to see the positive effects of this program.”

Tomorrow (October 8) is the start of Queensland Mental Health Week – an initiative linked to World Mental Health Day, marked on Monday (October 10).

Mental health is a top priority for UniSQ, which is focused on research and community partnerships that address key issues related to mental health and reduce the impact of mental illness in our communities.

Reason to Thrive equine programs manager Michelle Beatty said supporting the students as they carried out their placement learning was a win-win.

“We are excited to have the students join us and share their experience of our programs,” Mrs Beatty said.

“The insight that the students will give us from a mental health viewpoint could allow our facilitators to interpret the outcomes from a different lens which may not always be so literal.”

Reason to Thrive offers two life skills programs, one for youth at-risk of becoming, or who have become, disengaged from formal education and family. The other is for women whose lives have been impacted by domestic violence.

Founded in Warwick in 2017 before moving to Brisbane in 2018, the organisation has supported more than 200 young people and 100 women over the past four years.

Are you passionate about a career focused on helping others? The University of Southern Queensland offers a wide range of degrees in psychology, counselling, human services and, from next year, social work. Find out more.