Leslie McCullough has seen the benefits of building a connection between a post-traumatic stress disorder patient and a horse countless times during her more than 25 years of practical experience.
Now, with a $50,000 grant from the Horse and Human Research Foundation, McCullough, an assistant professor of social work at Washburn University, and colleagues from Tufts University in Boston and an internationally respected equine therapy center in Temple, N.H., are working to quantify that connection in a much larger replication of McCullough's doctoral dissertation.
In her dissertation, McCullough measured the change in both the PTSD symptomatology of her young patients and their bond with the horse they worked with over an eight week period. The research showed significant changes in both.
"The therapist takes a back seat to the horse,” McCullough explained. “It's safer. The horse is not going to judge you. It demands you are stable or the horse won't want to be with you. That holding environment creates a safe place."
McCullough just finished her second academic year as an assistant professor at Washburn. She gave up her long-standing equine facilitated psychotherapy practice in Texas to move to Topeka.
In replicating her earlier research with a larger group of patients, a control group and a longer study time period, the researchers are hoping to build upon McCullough's original findings. Preparations, including training of horse-handlers and others, is ongoing now. The research phase of the study will conclude in February 2015.
"I've known some of these people for more than 20 years. We want to see the science part happening," McCullough said. "It feels like this profession that we helped develop has just mushroomed."
McCullough is teaching a course this summer on the human-animal connection. She has a therapy dog, Hopi, and one of her therapy horses, Cesar, is working with the newly forming equine therapy center in Topeka called Hope and Healing Academy.