Since childhood, Roya Ghahremani has known she was interested in these two things – studying the human mind and working with horses.
In her current studies at Trent University, the second-year Master of Psychology student is combining these two interests into a unique research project focused on helping girls aged 13 to 18 overcome interpersonal trauma. The innovative project uses an approach called Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) to teach valuable and transferable life skills through positive interaction with horses.
Undergraduate Work, Volunteer Work and Faculty Connection Led to Current Research Project
While working on her undergraduate degree, Ms. Ghahremani was involved in research to better understand how to improve first responder resiliency and reduce work related stress and trauma. During that time, Ms. Ghahremani, an avid equestrian herself, first learned about EAL and began volunteering at an EAL barn to gain better insight into this novel and intriguing program.
Following her acceptance into the School of Graduate Studies at Trent University, Ms. Ghahremani was assigned to work alongside Psychology professor, and thesis advisor, Dr. Katia Keefer on a project: Building Internal Resilience Through Horses.
“It was a perfect pairing,” says Ms. Ghahremani.
How EAL Teaches Resilience
Because horses are both prey and herd animals, they are masters at reading human emotions and body language and reflecting them back to us. “Even without our knowing it, participants are able to identify things in themselves that they wouldn’t be able to alone or when interacting with other people,” says Ms. Ghahremani. This makes for learning about non-verbal communication, boundaries, and teamwork in a non-judgmental environment.
Within the EAL there is not any riding is involved, activities are designed to map different aspects of resilience, grooming the horses with brushes, for example, teaches participants about self-care, while leading a horse on a rope for a walk ties into leadership, confidence and being in control.
Through her research Ms. Ghahremani has identified the positive influence that EAL programs can have on individuals, whether they have a clinical diagnosis or not. Ms. Ghahremani points out that EAL is an intervention, not a therapy, so it does not require an official clinical diagnosis or the presence of a mental health worker. “You just need to have a certified equine instructor, so that makes it very accessible,” she says.
Trent Ideal for Academic Support and Access to Farms
Ms. Ghahremani credits Professor Keefer with being a great source of support. “She’s been the pillar of this research and has really guided me in the right direction, offering me just enough help to keep me focused but allowing me enough freedom to play around with the research and make it my own,” she says. She has also benefitted from faculty relationships with the professors she has had teaching assistantships with.
With the campus being close to rural areas, Trent is the ideal physical location for someone conducting EAL research. “Trent and horses go hand in hand,” says Ms. Ghahremani, who recently won the Trent Graduate Student Association First Runner Up Prize for her 3 Minute Thesis contribution based on her research, and will soon present her work virtually at an upcoming Canadian Psychological Association Conference.