For three years, Dr Carly Butler, of the School of Social, Political and Geographical Sciences, will be evaluating a new Macmillan Cancer Support service launched in Derbyshire that aims to use horses to improve the emotional health of people affected by cancer.
The Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology will be looking at the psychosocial wellbeing of 400 people before and after they undertake four EAAT sessions, which will be held at the Spirit and Soul Equine Assisted Activity Centre in Kirk Langley.
The sessions, which start in June and take place over eight to 10 weeks, will see visitors take part in structured therapeutic activities and spend time with the horses and learn basic horsemanship and grooming skills.
Dr Butler will use questionnaires to monitor how participants’ perceived quality of life, stress, self-esteem, coping strategies and sense of hope change after taking part in the sessions.
She will also assess the psychosocial wellbeing of a second group of people that have received a cancer diagnosis in the past five years and monitor how their thoughts and feelings change over time without any specific intervention.
This will enable Dr Butler to look at the differences between the two groups and more confidently identify changes related to the EAAT sessions – effectively the study will compare intervention against no intervention.
The academic has not received funding to carry out the research but wanted to do so as it’s a concept close to her heart.
Dr Butler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and, over the space of three years, had to undergo chemotherapy, radiotherapy, a double mastectomy and an operation to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.
As a child, she grew up on a farm in New Zealand and spent a lot of time around horses but lost touch with the animals when she moved out.
They returned to her life following her diagnosis and she believes horses have been key to her recovery.
Dr Butler said: “Rediscovering horses went hand-in-hand with my physical and emotional recovery. It started when my daughter invited me to go with her to see a potential loan horse, an ex-racehorse called Otis.
“I fell in love with him pretty much straight away, and while my daughter didn’t end up loaning him, I arranged to go and visit and help care for him.
“I found that simply being around Otis brought me a great deal of calmness, and walking with him helped me to regain some physical strength. I then started riding again at a local riding school, and after a few months decided to get my own horse.
“Horses then became a major part of my life. I subsequently moved to live on the livery yard where my horse is kept, so I am surrounded by horses!
“They bring me emotional peace and help me reconnect with my body, healing the aspects of myself and my life that were damaged by the cancer treatment. I am learning as much about myself as I am about them.”
She continued: “In terms of research, little is known yet about how horses help humans.
“I’m very passionate about the Macmillan-Spirit and Soul project and wanted to do the study with or without funding.
“I believe there is a lack of services for people dealing with the psychosocial impacts of cancer and equine assisted activities are uniquely placed to be able to offer this kind of support.
“The research is an important aspect of the project as there is a real need for more empirical studies of EAAT, particularly its use for people affected by cancer.”
As well as evaluating the Macmillan-Spirit and Soul service, Dr Butler also hopes to look at interactions in the sessions using conversation analytic methodologies.
She said: “My main area of research is social interaction, so I am curious about how horses interact with each other and with humans.
“The conversation analytic methodologies I use to study human interaction have not really been used to explore equine communication, so I am excited to see what these methods can contribute to the field, and what application of the method might reveal about the structures of interaction across species.
“Equine assisted activities and therapy make use of horses’ remarkable communicative abilities and interactional sensitivities and this is something I will be looking at alongside the service evaluation.”
The launch of the Macmillan EAAT sessions was celebrated at an event on Friday (May 25).
Commenting on the new service and the research project, Sue Sanderson, Macmillan Partnership Manager for Derbyshire, said: “This service is very exciting because we’ve not seen anything like it before, it’s a first.
"We know anecdotally that this type of support has real potential to improve the emotional wellbeing of people affected by cancer, so I’m delighted that Dr Butler is undertaking this research and we will do everything we can to support her.”
For more information on the EAAT service, contact Sarah Stephens at the Spirit and Soul Equine Assisted Centre on firstname.lastname@example.org.