top of page

At the Intersection of Social Work and Theory is Equine-Assisted Social Work

The method used in Equine Assisted Social Work (EASW) is rooted in theory.
This section (not exhaustive) links some essential principles of social work to EASW.
A young rider thrilled to be riding a horse

Equine-assisted social work (EASW) combines social work theory with equine-assisted services, and is a growing field. This section presents common social work concepts and a non-exhaustive list documented in peer-reviewed journals and academic textbooks, providing a theoretical foundation for EASW.

Young rider and horse  with trainer against a forest

Person In Environment

The Person in Environment (PIE) theory traces back to our social work foremothers, Jane Addams and Mary Richmond circa 1920. The overarching concept is that humans cannot be understood in isolation, rather, they can only be fully understood within the framework of their environment. People are influenced by the world or environment where they exist. PIE serves as the foundation for additional social science theories such as the systems theory and the ecological perspective.

EASW Connection

Equine-assisted social work: Applying the Person in Environment theory through the power of horses and the vibrancy of nature to understand and support clients.

Fairy Hibachi Restaurant

Systems Theory

To understand human behavior in the environment, social workers must consider all systems at play. This site argues that the environment extends beyond the human centered environment to include human animals, non-human animals, and the natural environment and when one aspect of the system is impacted, the entire system is impacted.

Von Bertalanffy, L. (1972). The history and status of general systems theory. Academy of management journal, 15(4), 407-426.

EASW Connection

In Equine-Assisted Social Work, the natural environment, including the horses, can serve as a model for how systems operate and interact. By observing the horses in their natural environment, social workers can gain insight into how various systems interact and how changes in one area can impact the entire system. This can provide valuable lessons and metaphors for clients in understanding their own environments and systems.

Blind young man brushes a horse's tail

Strengths Based Perspective

Saleeby (1996) pioneered the Strengths perspective, which aligns with social work practice by recognizing that every living being has a strength, purpose, and role in the universe. Working with a horse can help identify an individual's inherent strengths, such as recognizing stress or anxiety through a horse's behavior. By implementing a plan for change and practicing deep breathing techniques, the horse may show signs of relaxation and a desire to connect physically, forming the basis for a relationship.

EASW Connection

Equine-Assisted Social Work (EASW): Empowering clients through nonverbal communication and physical interaction with horses to recognize and build upon their inherent strengths, fostering a sense of self-efficacy and resilience.

Two teenagers leading a small horse

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory addresses a biological imperative and developmental milestone for all individuals. Attachment Theory underscores the need for connection to other humans, other animals, and the environment. A horse can serve as a bridge connecting human to human or human to animal or human to animal and the environment.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. N. (2015). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.

Bachi, K. (2013). Application of attachment theory to equine-facilitated psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 43(3), 187-196.

Bowlby, J. (2008). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic books.

EASW Connection

Equine-Assisted Social Work (EASW): Building and strengthening attachment through the unique bond between horse and human, promoting emotional regulation and resilience in individuals and their relationships with others, animals, and the environment.

Boy in a wheelchair reaches to touch a horse

Anti-Oppressive Practice (AOP)

AOP framework complements animal assisted social work practice. There is an awareness of how one treats another living being that is seen, felt, and experienced. There is nonverbal modeling of dignity and worth of an individual. A connection can be made that is unique to the individual and can tie the social worker and client to one another in a basic way.

EASW Connection

Equine-Assisted Social Work (EASW): A unique, nonverbal approach to AOP that promotes connection and models dignity and worth of all living beings, fostering awareness of how we treat others and promoting a basic connection between social worker and client.

Young People Raking leaves in a forest

Liberatory Consciousness

The Liberatory consciousness framework suggests that questions are as important or more important than the answers. There are four competencies in the Liberatory Consciousness framework: “Awareness, Analysis, Action, and Accountability” (Love, 2000).

Love, B. J. (2000). Developing a liberatory consciousness. Readings for diversity and social justice, 2(470-474)

EASW Connection

Using the Liberatory Consciousness framework in Equine Assisted Social Work (EASW) empowers clients to question, analyze, take action, and be accountable for their own growth and healing, all while building a deep and authentic connection with horses in a natural environment.

Red Barn in Fall

Critical Theory

Critical Theory is an essential lens to apply in social work practice. Critical Theory seeks to question and understand oppression to eradicate the burdens it imposes and frees the individual(s) systems and institutions from the repression.

Bohman, J. (2005). Critical theory.

Kincheloe, J. L., McLaren, P., & Steinberg, S. R. (2011). Critical pedagogy and qualitative research. The SAGE handbook of qualitative research, 163-177.


EASW Connection

Equine-assisted social work can incorporate a critical theory lens, encouraging questioning and understanding of oppression to free individuals and systems from repression.

Sunset over young person riding in a padock

Green Social Work

Social workers must include the natural environment in their toolkit. The natural environment impacts each individual and all systems. Social workers need to understand and recognize the impact from the environment in its glory and its degradation. In addition, social workers need to consider the impact resulting from the exclusion or separation from the environment.  Increased awareness is needed around the fact that there is a disproportionately negative impact on environmental degradation and lack of access and proximity to land for marginalized populations.

EASW Connection

Social workers must recognize and address the impact of the natural environment, including degradation and exclusion, on individuals and systems, particularly for marginalized populations.

forest kids

Regenerative Agriculture / Permaculture

Indigenous cultures know how to observe the land and the natural environment. Indigenous cultures understand the inextricable connection between human animals, nonhuman animals and the environment, both the positive benefits and the effects when there is negative change. Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture honor the connections from the beginning of time and rely on the environment to show what it needs to thrive and when the environment is stressed, negatively impacted and in need of change.

EASW Connection

Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture honor the interconnection between human and nonhuman animals and the environment, using observation to promote holistic well-being and positive change.

Forest Baby

Biophilia Hypothesis

Humans have a biological need to be connected to nature. Humans have spent 99.9% of recorded history in nature versus built and urban environments.

Space and place matter when interacting with humans and nature. Consider the experience for all humans when connecting with one another indoors, across desks, or through the internet versus connecting with one another without walls moving within nature (Moshe-Grodofsky & Alhuzail, 2021).

bottom of page