Katy Schroeder was living in Pennsylvania working full-time at a three-day stable, competing and training for equine shows, when she decided to attend college to obtain her bachelor’s degree.
“While I was totally immersed in competitive horse training, I wanted to also go get my bachelor’s degree,” Schroeder said. “I noticed I was gravitating toward psychology, sociology and learning more about human behavior. So, I got my bachelor’s in sociology.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology, Schroeder began focusing on her career.
“I was thinking, ‘What’s next?’” Schroeder said. “I was racking my brain because I didn’t want to do competitive riding anymore. I wanted to try out the helping professions. I wanted to do something meaningful to help other people.”
Schroeder decided to take a break from horses and took a job working with at-risk youth in Oregon.
“I decided to take a wilderness therapy job in Oregon,” she said. “I took a break from horses but didn’t want to take a break from being outdoors. I always wanted that to be a part of any job I did. I did wilderness therapy and learned a great deal about at-risk youth.”
While she did enjoy her job working with youth, Schroeder missed horses and started volunteering at a local therapeutic riding center, which sparked a new career interest.
“That was the ticket,” Schroeder said. “I was totally sold. I was like ‘Alright, now I can do both. I can help people and be around horses and share my knowledge of horses with other people.’ So I became a certified therapeutic riding instructor.”
One day, the center where she was working hosted a workshop where she says she learned her calling.
“I was introduced to equine-assisted mental health, and it blew my mind away,” Schroeder said. “I was amazed by what happened when we gave this workshop.”
Because of her new experience, she decided to go back to school and obtain her master’s degree.
“The trainer was sharing about being a therapist and doing equine assisted therapies,” Schroeder said. “So I said ‘Okay, I know what my next step is.’ So, I went and got my master’s in counseling so that I could actually deliver mental health services.”
Toward the end of her master’s program, she got into research grant writing and wanted to understand how equine therapy could help trauma survivors. She began working with women in shelters and did her clinical internship at a domestic violence shelter.
“I thought that if women who had experienced interpersonal violence could go out and work with the horses, it would be a great therapeutic experience,” Schroeder said.
Because of her work with women, she and her advisor began researching equine-assisted mental health. She had found her other calling.
“My advisor and I began to research, and we received a research grant,” she said. “And that is where I got the research bug, and I decided to keep going for my Ph.D. Part of my dissertation was on those groups of women survivors.”
Soon after graduating with her doctorate in counseling, she got hired as an assistant professor in Texas Tech’s companion animal program in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences where she focuses on equine-assisted mental health.
“I felt like it was written for me. It’s a dream job, and I‘m super excited because we are only just getting started.”
“When somebody told me about this job I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is exactly what I was looking for.’ I couldn’t have planned it more perfectly,” she said. “They needed somebody with equine experience who also had clinical experience to start up this program. I felt like it was written for me. It’s a dream job, and I‘m super excited because we are only just getting started.”
Since she was hired on in January 2017, Schroeder has added equine-assisted mental health activities to Texas Tech’s Therapeutic Riding Center’s program.
Schroeder is balancing a clinical role with research and teaching. She is currently teaching an equine-assisted mental health course for both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as a human interaction course.
“For the equine-assisted mental health lab,” Schroeder explained, “I take them through actual activities that I do with the clients and teach them the different methods and models used in equine assisted therapy.”
The human interaction course Schroeder teaches within the companion animal program focuses on human-animal interaction.
“This is a broader course that gives everyone an overview of the world of human-animal interaction,” Schroeder said, “whether that’s production, animal-assisted therapy, or pets in the home. We look at it historically, as well as culturally.”
The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, or PATH International, is a global authority, resource and advocate for equine-assisted activities and therapies. According to PATH’s website, the concept that horses might be helpful or healing to people struggling with mental health issues is based on the idea that horses (as domesticated prey animals) are extremely sensitive to changes in the human being (as a predatory creature).
According to PATH’s website, horses react and respond to people differently based on the person’s emotional state. Since we know that emotional states in human beings also impact our physiology, it only makes sense that horses can smell or sense those changes.
Schroeder said most PATH centers are adopting equine-assisted psychotherapy or equine facilitated psychotherapy. She said the program is a must because of its growing popularity across the United States.
Texas Tech’s Therapeutic Riding Center has two major programs: therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. However, Schroeder said no program addresses mental health.
“With hippotherapy, you’ll have a medical professional running the session based on the patient’s needs,” Schroeder said. “Those needs could be physical, speech or occupational therapy, and that person is credentialed to do that type of therapy and then incorporate the horse as part of the therapy specific to those type of goals.”
Schroeder said equine-assisted mental health sessions utilize equine-assisted activities to meet specific mental health goals.
“For instance, somebody may be experiencing anxiety, or you could be even more specific social anxiety disorder,” Schroeder said. “They may be having trouble making friends or are afraid to go out in public, just very uncomfortable in social situations.”
Schroeder said the patients can come out to the barn, and she can talk with them about how to work through social anxiety by doing specific activities with the horse.
“These activities provide a learning experience in a safe environment to test out new ways of doing or thinking with the horse as their partner,” Schroeder said, “and then going back out into their daily life and trying those things in situations that are maybe more anxiety-provoking.”
She explained that for patients managing anxiety, they are also trying to manage their physical symptoms of anxiety as well, including: racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling and sweaty palms.
“With horses, I can help people become more aware of their body and what their body is telling them based on how the horse is interacting with them and how they are approaching and interacting with the horse,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder said for depression it may be just the act of getting out to the barn, doing something different, and feeling confident about doing a skill with the horse and feeling a sense of self-esteem such as, ‘I am capable. I can get through this.’
“There are different ways that horses impact how humans feel and how they think of themselves,” Schroeder said.