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Improving Adolescent Social Competence and Behavior: A Randomized Trial of an 11-Week Equine Facilitated Learning Prevention Program


There is growing evidence that promoting social competence in youth is an effective strategy to prevent mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders in adulthood. Research suggests that programs delivered in collaboration with schools are particularly effective when they target social and emotional skill building, utilize an interactive instructional style, provide opportunities for youth participation and self-direction, and include explicit attempts to enhance youth social competence. A relatively new but popular approach that incorporates these characteristics is human animal interaction, which can be implemented in educational settings. We report the results from a randomized clinical trial examining the effects of an 11-week equine facilitated learning (EFL) program on the social competence and behavior of 5th–8th grade children. Children (N = 131) were recruited through referral by school counselors and school-based recruitment and then screened for low social competence. Researchers randomly assigned children to an experimental (n = 53) or waitlisted control group (n = 60). Children in the experimental group participated in an 11-week EFL program consisting of once-weekly, 90-min sessions of individual and team-focused activities, whereas children in the control group served as a wait-listed control and participated 16 weeks later. Parents of children in both groups rated child social competence at pretest and posttest. Three independent raters observed and reported children’s positive and negative behavior using a validated checklist during each weekly session. Results indicated that program participation had a moderate treatment effect (d = .55) on social competence (p = .02) that was independent of pretest levels, age, gender, and referral status. Results showed that higher levels of program attendance predicted children’s trajectories of observed positive (β = .500; p = .003) and negative behavior (β = −.062; p < .001) over the 11-week program.

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  1. Therapeutic riding is therapy or treatment that incorporates equine activities and/or the equine environment. Rehabilitative or habilitative goals are related to the patient’s needs and the medical professional’s standards of practice ( Therapeutic riding has been used to contribute to the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social well-being of people with disabilities.

  2. Hippotherapy refers to physical, occupational or speech therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement. This strategy is used as part of an integrated treatment program to achieve functional outcomes (

  3. EAP is an experiential psychotherapy that involves a collaborative effort between a properly licensed mental health professional and an appropriately credentialed horse professional to incorporate horses in working with clients to address mutually established treatment goals and objectives (Fine & Beck, 2010).


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This work was supported through grant number 1R03HD066590-01 to the first author from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development and Mars-Waltham. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the National Institutes of Health, or Mars-Waltham.

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Correspondence to Patricia Pendry.

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Pendry, P., Carr, A.M., Smith, A.N. et al. Improving Adolescent Social Competence and Behavior: A Randomized Trial of an 11-Week Equine Facilitated Learning Prevention Program. J Primary Prevent 35, 281–293 (2014).

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  • After-school program
  • Randomized clinical trial
  • Child social competence
  • Observed child behavior