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NMSU social work professor combines love of horses with her research

For Wanda Whittlesey-Jerome horses are more than an animal to ride or pull a wagon. They are a way to help people with emotional problems and physical disabilities.


Woman in cowboy hat brushing nose of horse
Wanda Whittlesey-Jerome talks with her horse, Eli. The NMSU assistant professor in the School of Social Work has combined her love of horses with her research into ways to help people with emotional problems and physical disabilities. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Whittlesey-Jerome, New Mexico State University assistant professor in the School of Social Work, combines her love of horses with her desire to understand ways animals can help people heal.

"As a teenager, I was fortunate to have my own horse," she said of her life growing up in a rural community north of Dallas, Texas. "I have always had a special place in my heart for horses. I don't know what it was. I couldn't put it into words, but I knew I had a connection. I wasn't a lonely teenager. My mare was always glad to see me in the morning and after school. Having a horse helped me meet other kids through equine activities, as well as people who also loved horses."

As her life progressed to young adulthood, Whittlesey-Jerome's interaction with horses ceased as other interests occupied her time. Later, as her life path moved her toward a profession as a social worker and eventually a college professor on the subject, in the back of her mind she knew she wanted to someday have horses back in her life.

That day came when she and her husband Ric moved to Corrales, N.M. "While I enjoy my personal horses, Eli and Lady, I wanted to explore the use of horses in therapeutic settings," she said.

Through the National Association of Social Workers New Mexico Chapter, Whittlesey-Jerome is networking with other social workers in the state using horses in therapy with their clients.

Therapies with horses can be either on the ground, known as equine-assisted psychotherapy, or while riding, vaulting or driving, known as therapeutic riding. The prefix "equus" is Latin for horse; in Greek, the prefix "hippo" means horse; however, though hippo-therapy typically uses riding to strengthen gross and fine motor skills, as well as communication skills, equine-assisted psychotherapy rarely uses riding as part of the therapeutic intervention.

"A number of years ago, I became aware of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association's model which was created by a clinical social worker as an intervention for behavioral health and mental health," she said.

The EAGALA model has clients working either individually or in groups with horses. While not riding the animals, the people work the horse through obstacle courses within an arena. The work is often done without touching the horse or talking to the team members.

"The teams come up with some really unique problem-solving and the individual members learn about themselves through the way the horses react to them," Whittlesey-Jerome said. "Since horses are prey animals they are very aware of everything in their environment. They know if a person has self-confidence and is in control of the situation, or if they are afraid. A teenager hiding behind a tough attitude soon learns that the horse is not impressed by his or her baggy pants and blue hairdo. Horses act as mirrors and are not judgmental. They approach these kids just the way they are and they usually open up and are more like their real 'selves' around the horses."

She adds that horses are curious, precocious, social and like being with people and other horses. Horses like contributing and being busy, so they enjoy being part of a therapeutic exercise.

"I have also been involved with the Cloud Dancers Therapeutic Horsemanship Program in the greater Albuquerque area. While EAGALA is an equine-assisted psychotherapy model, Cloud Dancers has offered both EAGALA and therapeutic horsemanship - where clients have an opportunity for a unique therapeutic, recreational experience in a fun, safe environment," she said of the organization, of which she had served on its board of directors until September 2012.

As a social work professional and NMSU professor at NMSU-Albuquerque Center's master's of social work program, Whittlesey-Jerome wanted to quantify the impact equine assisted therapy has on clients through research studies in order to help build an evidence-base for its utility.

"Clinical social workers have been using companion animals, such as dogs, in the therapeutic setting for a number of years," said Whittlesey-Jerome, the current president of NASW's New Mexico Chapter. "So using horses seems like a logical progression to that. We have established a network of clinical social workers with horses across the state."

To date, Whittlesey-Jerome has conducted several studies to quantify the impact of equine-assisted psychotherapy on at-risk adolescent resilience, and hippo-therapy and therapeutic riding on the gross and fine motor skills, communication skills and behaviors for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

"Early results are positive and indicate that this type of therapy does help," she said. "In a study of at-risk adolescents, we learned that the equine-assisted psychotherapy group demonstrated stronger positive changes in resilience scores compared to those in a typical psycho-educational, talk therapy group," she said.

Partnering with Cloud Dancers and Albuquerque Public Schools, the study of children on the autism spectrum showed that equine-therapies had a positive impact on the boys' physical and behavioral health, which translated to a higher degree of success in school over the short term. Interestingly, Whittlesey-Jerome and the boys' therapists wondered if riding atop a horse could have influenced these boys who were mostly confined to wheelchairs for mobility, and that their "change in perspective" might have influenced their overall sense of self as a result.

As she is compiling her findings into research presentations and articles, Whittlesey-Jerome has begun another equine study that will explore the impact of equine-assisted psychotherapy on the general self-efficacy of adult female victims of interpersonal violence. In this study, she will partner with Guadalupe Stables, LLC and Domestic Violence Resource Center, both of Albuquerque.

"Ultimately, my goal is to add to the evidence-base for equine-assisted activities and human-animal-nature activities so they can be shown to have therapeutic value to healing physical, mental and emotional/behavioral health issues," she said.

Whittlesey-Jerome's theoretical model, The Human-Animal Partnership Model, is being developed as a chapter in a comprehensive electronic textbook for veterinary and health professions students she is co-authoring with Gaylene Fasenko, assistant professor in NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Animal and Range Science Department.

Whittlesey-Jerome wants her work to go beyond research and authoring a book. She dreams of helping to develop a holistic, healing ranch that is run and operated by NMSU, where animals and crops are a central part of the healing of American soldiers, veterans and their families as they face the issues associated with repeated deployments into war zones, and/or the post-traumatic stress disorder that has been growing in frequency among service members. The vision is to provide services to the soldiers, veterans and their families in this comprehensive continuum of care.

"The idea is that we will take them as they come, if they just need a weekend retreat or if they need to be there for weeks on end. We will help them reconnect with the feeling parts of themselves in a safe place where they can work it out. Whether through sweat therapy by working with animals and/or working in a community garden, or by participating in all kinds of other innovative creative therapies, like mediation, yoga, massage and aromatherapy, and dance, music and art therapy," she said. "We want to bring together animals and nature, and everything in between, to help our military personnel and their families get back to a healthy life."

Whittlesey-Jerome's graduate social work research students originally envisioned the innovative military program, currently titled "R&R Ranch," in 2007. But financial issues impacting the economy caused the idea to be tabled until recently.

"We have Dean Lowell Catlett of the College Agriculture, Dean Tilahun Adera of the College of Health and Social Services, and Dean Garrey Carruthers of the College of Business (recently named president of NMSU) supporting the concept so far," she said. "As the idea begins to coalesce, more deans will be brought to the table, since R&R Ranch would ideally involve all colleges of the university as well as the community colleges, and the Cooperative Extension Service across the state."

"We currently have two social work students joining some business students to conduct a needs assessment, now called values proposition, through an independent study with Kevin Boberg at the Arrowhead Center during the summer," she said. "They will be interviewing folks across the state to find out if people think R&R Ranch is a good idea. Once that happens, MBA students at the College of Business will develop a business plan and from there it will take off."

Whittlesey-Jerome is excited about this future program, as are those who are supporting it.

"The idea is that we actually have a sustainable project that reaches out through our land-grant mission and our mission of military science to all corners of New Mexico. As Dean Catlett has said, 'This is a no-brainer,' and I agree. It's a win-win for all who will be involved," she said. "And, most recently, staff with our own NMSU Foundation have decided to focus on R&R Ranch as a priority project. When I think about the possibilities, I couldn't be happier."