Skip to main content

Hunkapi Horse Program teaches valuable skills

November 29, 2005

The ASU-Hunkapi Horse Program serves more than 200 participants each week, reaching more than 1,500 individuals annually. Hunkapi is a research-based horse therapy program that teaches life skills, personal development, and riding skills to individuals with physical and emotional challenges.

The program began in 1996 as a research study that examined the effect of sports and exercise on children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), autism, as well as at-risk youth and children with emotional needs. Results of the study showed that horse therapy provided the most consistently positive results compared to other physical interventions, such as basketball, swimming, and bicycle riding. Children with AD/HD showed significant improvements in reaction and movement time, self-esteem, as well as reduced depression and anxiety. Autistic children showed strengthened emotional control. With 1 in 166 children affected by autism or a related disorder (Centers for Disease Control, 2004), and with approximately 7.5 percent of school-age children with AD/HD (Mayo Clinic, 2002), the Hunkapi Horse Program meets a community need.

ASU’s Alternative Intervention Research Clinic established Hunkapi (pronounced Hoon KAH Pee) as an outreach service in 1999. The program serves the community through after school programs, mobile programs, summer camps and overnight camping excursions. Participants range in age from three through adult, with and without special needs.

Hunkapi programs teach participants to interact with the horses and focus on establishing positive, reciprocal relationships. Terra Schaad, the program’s director, explains that the reason the program has been able to help so many individuals is because horses require individuals to learn to manage their emotions. As horses give immediate feedback, it is evident that an individual’s emotions directly affect a horse. If a positive reaction from the horse is desired, the rider needs to put himself or herself into a frame of mind that affects the horse positively. This might compel the rider to be less anxious, less angry, less depressed, or calmer. Kids that cannot focus on a day-to-day basis are able to focus on the horse. Kids that have a hard time expressing trust and love are able to express these feelings naturally with a horse.

Terra Schaad remembers a particularly gratifying experience when she heard a six-year-old autistic boy speak his first words. When asked what makes this program worthwhile, she said, “Believing in people that [others] have given up on and seeing that there is hope.”

Hunkapi recently partnered with the Phoenix Zoo to provide a centrally located facility and equine program for children in need of equine therapy. Fundraising is underway to open a new 9-acre facility in January, 2006 that will combine resources to accommodate the growing number of individuals, families and groups requesting equine programs. The partners hope to jointly expand their outreach services and create additional scholarship opportunities for more children and adolescents to experience the therapeutic benefits of animal encounters.