What is Equine Assisted Learning?


Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) involves various methods learning activities

in which horse and human interactions result in the learning and development of the participants.


Over the past two decades, there has been innovative and expansive gro in the emerging field of Equine Assisted Learning (EAL). In the United States alone there are more than 700 centers that provide some type of equine assisted learning programs, and four internationally recognized associations in the United States alone that teach, support and certify their members in collaborating with horses for healing and human growth and learning purposes. (Horses Teaching Humans about Leadership, UKCA, theHorse.com, 2013)


So Why Horses?

  • In the wild horses are animals of prey, although domesticated by humans, the instinctive predatory/prey dynamic still exists between humans and horses.

  • Horses communicate nonverbally and rely on immediate feedback from their environment to survive

  • This communication extends between horses and humans providing a learning environment rich with relational problem-solving.

  • This allows people to learn emotional sensitivity, self and social awareness, self-management and effective communication skills and strategies through experiential learning with horses.

  • Horses are also very large animals and working with them successfully requires one to become very present and aware – much like the horses themselves.

  • Experiencing Non-verbal interactions, based on awareness of and effective use of nonverbal skills and heightened perception and sensitivity, are not only magnified when working with horses but foundational for establishing a working relationship with them.

  • A learning transfer,  which occurs in one context having an impact on performance in another context (Perkins, 1992), can occur more readily with participation in a facilitated equine guided experience.

  • A large body of circumstantial evidence suggests that collaborating with the horse can be an excellent example of learning leadership competency, including emotional intelligence, in and through action.  


Most research in the area of horse/human interactions has focused on working with horses for therapeutic results, as with hippotherapy (working with horses to improve physical balance and mobility) (Shurtleff, Standeven, Engsberg 2009; Silkwood-Sherer, Warmbier, 2007; Sterba, 2007), mental health applications (Esbjorn, 2006; Schultz, Remick-Barlo, Robbins, 2007; Nirdrine, Owen-Smith, Faulkner, 2002) and with children with autism (Gabriels et al, 2012). However, increasingly academic research is being conducted and published that explores the effectiveness of working with horses to improve emotional intelligence and other leadership competencies.


The University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Center for Leadership Development, has compiled crucial information since 2009 by conducting research on the effectiveness of equine guided education.  Thier 2012 study with nursing care using EAL is pioneering research that validates the benefits of Equine Assisted Experiential Learning. (http://www2.ca.uky.edu/cfld/research.php)


William Torbert, professor of management and former director of the Ph.D. Program in Organizational Transformation at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College has written extensively on what he calls action inquiry - the process of questioning in a relationship with action. He states that “experiential learning involves becoming aware of the qualities, patterns, and consequences of one’s own experience as one experiences it” (1972, p.7)  


Because horses give feedback on every reaction we make and every emotion we hold, working with them forces us to engage in first, second and third level feedback or “action inquiry” (Torbert, 2004). In effect, horses don’t lie.  Due to their natural prey instincts, they respond honestly to how a person is showing up on both a physical and emotional level and provide in-the-moment feedback.


By increasing curiosity (inquiry) and awareness about the comfort level of the horse, and getting honest in-the-moment feedback from them we can choose to act in ways that make collaboration happen easily and more frequently. Consistent and conscious actions, in this case, non-predatory actions on a leader’s part, builds trust among the follower (the horse) as well as allow people to become conscious of how their emotions and body language affect those around them and therefore learn how to manage them effectively in the moment.