SRU Research Focus: Study is helping establish guidelines for recreational therapists using equines


Student reasearcher at Storm Harbor

Chase Decker, a Slippery Rock University sophomore dual recreational therapy and pre-physical therapy major, grew up riding horses and now she’s conducting research with a team at SRU that could help establish guidelines for recreational therapists to use equines in their practice.

July 18, 2023

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Researchers at Slippery Rock University are at the forefront of preparing national standards for recreational therapists who use equines in their practice. Thanks to a grant from the National Council on Therapeutic Recreation Certification, a research team at SRU is collecting and analyzing data from a survey that was sent to more than 20,000 certified therapeutic recreational specialists. The team also brought experts to campus to create guidelines for using equines that will be recommended to the American Therapeutic Recreation Association, the only national organization representing recreational therapists.

The SRU researchers include:

  • Betsy Kemeny, associate professor of recreational therapy.
  • Whitney Angelini, instructor of recreational therapy.
  • Courtney Gramlich, manager of the Storm Harbor Equestrian Center.
  • Chase Decker, a sophomore dual recreational therapy and pre-physical therapy major from Parkesburg.

External experts included:

  • Blair McKissock, the director of education at Strides for Success, an organization that provides equine assisted learning in Indiana.
  • Taylor Hooker, a recreational therapist and health system specialist for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Research question: "We're trying to understand how much recreational therapists are using equines in practice," Kemeny said. "It's very prominent here on our campus because we have this wonderful facility, but many rec therapists can't use equine for a variety of reasons, whether it's expenses, lack of training or the people they are working with are too sick. We're trying to understand the variables out there and why people use equines in their practice and why they don't."

Methods: As a research assistant, Decker is being paid through the NCTRC grant to assist in administering the survey and help the SRU researchers and visiting experts analyze the data. Nearly 300 certified practitioners completed the survey.

Why this topic?: SRU has been at the forefront of animal-assisted interventions, both in terms of research and offering services to the community. At the 23,700-square-foot Storm Harbor Equestrian Center, SRU provides equine-assisted activities and equine-assisted therapies for children and adults with disabilities from across the region. According to Kemeny, there's a lot of research showing the benefits of being around horses, whether for treating substance abuse disorder or chronic mental health conditions. This includes veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder or adolescents with the autism spectrum disorder. Through grooming and riding the horses, individuals can reduce anxiety and improve communication skills.

How will this study benefit others?: There are no specific standards or guidelines for using equines in recreational therapy. The SRU study will help organizations like the ATRA incorporate the proper advanced training for people using equines for therapy.

"We're a very consumer-focused profession, so if there's something out there like equine therapy that can really help people, then we want people to have access to the service," Kemeny said. "It's also good for recreational therapists, as a profession, to help figure out how to get training to people who want it."

How do SRU students benefit from conducting research?: Decker has been able to gain research experience during her first year as an undergraduate that students at other institutions might not receive until they reach graduate school. Decker, whose extended family owns horses, said she is a perfect fit for the research.

"I was looking for a bigger challenge to go along with my degree because I want to go to graduate school and study physical therapy," Decker said. "I'm learning a lot about different systems of data collection and evidence-based practices. The rec therapy program at SRU is unique. For other undergraduates going into physical therapy, they might major in biology, chemistry or health sciences, but with rec therapy, I am able to do a lot of hands-on work with horses and get involved more with research early on."

What's next?: The SRU researchers are planning to submit results from their study to academic journals and provide quality guidelines for NCTRC certifications to the ATRA by the end of the year.

More information about SRU's recreational therapy program is available on the SRU website. More information about the NCTRC is available at

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