KOKOMO, Ind. — In a barn near Cicero, Indiana, the psychologists and teachers have four legs.
Jitterbug, a quarter pony, lead nine eighth-grade boys through lessons on leadership, assisted by human instructors.
Psychology students from Indiana University Kokomo were able to observe a potential career in their field during a sophomore sojourn to Agapé Therapeutic Riding Resources Inc.
“This provides a good demonstration of alternative careers and alternative applications of psychology,” said Gin Morgan, lecturer of psychology. “It raises awareness of some of the issues our community members are dealing with, and ways they can seek treatment for some of those issues outside of what you normally think of when you think of psychological treatment.”
For Stefanie Fuller, the day in the barn reawakened an interest in equine therapy, and may lead her to seek certification in that area, in addition to the psychology degree she’s earning.
“It’s definitely giving me more tools in my tool box to use,” said Fuller, who grew up showing horses in Delphi. It’s veered me back onto the path of wanting to do equine-facilitated therapy. Horses have always been my kind of thing, where you go to get stress relief. It’s awesome to help other people see what horses can teach you.”
“Even if I don’t do equine therapy full time, I could incorporate it into my practice a few days a week, to find a balance working in an office and with horses.”
She was excited to learn about potential volunteer opportunities, which might be used to fulfill some of her practicum requirements.
The experience began with shadowing instructors Lyn Penford and Marsha Farias in the class for eighth-grade boys, starting in the classroom, and then moving out into the arena with Jitterbug. While today’s topic is leadership, they’ve also talked about communication, confidence, self-control, and cooperation in previous sessions.
They started with discussion of what makes someone a leader, and each boy read a leadership statement from a paper. Then, the boys put what they’ve learned into practice, as each one takes a turn leading the group to try to walk Jitterbug through a pathway.
Penford noted that while horses and ponies are chosen based on ability to cooperate with a group safely, they are not trained on what specific tasks groups will be asked to do with them. Before any group enters the arena with a horse, each member learns about horsemanship, herd dynamics, and safety.
Andrew Fields, Las Vegas, thought it was interesting to see how much more engaged the boys were when Jitterbug became part of the class.
“Working with the pony, they became a team,” he said. “It was interesting to see how bringing an animal into the equation changed the group dynamic. We really saw psychology in action.”
In addition to the classes with the local middle schoolers, Agapé also has therapy groups for children with disabilities, people who have experienced trauma, and others. It’s a change of pace from sitting in group therapy and talking.
“People get conditioned to sitting and talking. Here we’re in your face,” Penford said. “You’re engaged more. You see how horses express their emotions, and learn from that. The horses really do the work. They’re very wise. We’re just here to feed them and take care of them.”
Isaac Badry, Peru, was particularly impressed with discussion of equine-facilitated therapy with girls recovering from assault. If a person does not assert himself or herself as the leader, the horse will take that role, Penford said. One girl in a recent group was being pushed around by her horse, and finally planted her feet, looked the horse in the eye, and asserted herself, telling it firmly it was not allowed to touch her again.
“The horses helped the girls learn about being assertive, to take leadership with the animals, to own their own bodies, and to make their own choices,” he said. “I feel like I can use what I learned today in my future classes, to understand how psychology can be used in the real world.”
Seeing psychology in action, outside the classroom, is one of the main goals of the sophomore sojourn, Morgan said.
“We want to demonstrate some of the real-world applications of psychological principles students learn in class,” she said. “We also want students to gain a greater understanding of the variety of career opportunities in this major.
We discuss career options with students in our curriculum, but it's nice for students to get to learn about these options first-hand.”
The sophomore sojourn is part of IU Kokomo’s “KEY” program – the Kokomo Experience and You, which launched in 2016 with the goal of providing students chances to connect with people and participate in real-world experiences. The goal is for each student to have a travel experience within his or her major.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.