Interview with Clare Thomas-Pino

Interview with

Clare Thomas-Pino, HHRF Scientific Advisory Council Member

September 2, 2015

Clare is a former Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA) board member, former chair of the EFMHA research committee, and a member of The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International equine advocacy task force. Clare is an Interdisciplinary PhD candidate at the University of Maine, researching eco-therapies, equine facilitated psychotherapy and the human equine bond as well as obtaining clinical licensure in counseling.

She has a strong educational and research background in animal behavior, psychology, women’s health and counseling. She has over 30 years of equine experience, practicing and encouraging mutual respect-based equine handling practices. Clare teaches research methods courses, as well as courses in Livestock and Companion Animal Behavior, Equine Behavior, and Medical Issues for Counselors at the University of Maine. She is currently developing a primarily online certificate program in Animal Assisted Activities and Therapies (including Equine) and Anthrozoology for the UMaine System. She strongly encourages students to increase their awareness of how their behavior influences the behavior of the animals.

HHRF: What is your research background or interest area?

CT: As an undergrad when I was studying psychology, animal behavior and biomedicine and it was then that I became interested in attachment theory. An article I read in 1996 by Judith Tyler (published in ’94) called “EFP: Worth More Than Just a Horse Laugh” inspired me to finish my undergrad degree and really focus on the human-equine bond. Reading that article made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I’d been working with horses since age four, they were an important part of my life and I was always amazed how my and others’ behavior was dramatically influenced by our time with equines.

I started a job in women’s health and epidemiology which led to a Masters in social and developmental psychology. I studied how people formulate ideas and communicate, and how that impacts their health. My interest in attachment theory came into play with that too. I met Molly Sweeney at the Horses and Healing Conference at Touchstone Farms in 2004 and it is then that I decided I really wanted to incorporate my various interests into a doctorate, so I approached the University of Maine about an interdisciplinary PhD degree. I am primarily trained to be therapist, but I have found I love the teaching piece more and thoroughly enjoy helping people pursue their interests in animal-assisted activities. 

Having come from the field of epidemiology, where there is good evidence-based practice, to this field that was lacking it, good research quickly became very important to me. Making sure that these therapies are available for all is also very important to me. Through the courses I took for my doctorate I learned a lot about adventure and wilderness therapy and horticultural therapy in addition to animal-assisted. Every one of those different therapies, provided they are following an approved protocol, should be available to all and supported by insurance. My personal mission is to support research to prove the efficacy and cost effectiveness of these alternative therapies. 

HHRF: How would you explain your connection to HHRF or its mission?
CT: I am drawn to HHRF because of the wonderful people who share a common goal of seeing the industry succeed, and do well and serve as many people as possible. Everyone strongly believes in solid research.
HHRF: What broad observations or trends have your observed from your time on the Scientific Advisory - regarding applications, review process, types of research proposed, types of research funded, or anything else.

CT: The biggest thing is improvement in the quality of proposals. I advise capstone (4th year undergrads) students who have to do a mock grant application, and when I was first reviewing HHRF proposals, I would literally look at proposals and cry. Improvement in quality and caliber of applicants and facilities they are working with has really improved. I don’t think there are any major universities at this point that haven’t participated in this type of research. The international participation is also growing, we regularly receive applications now from Europe, Asia and South America. The other change I’ve observed is the research projects used to focus on hippotherapy and therapeutic riding and now we are seeing many more that are dealing with mental health, including working with military veterans. 

HHRF: What is the most exciting EAA research happening today (within our outside of HHRF)? 

CT: All of it! I see a tremendous amount of pure equine behavior research happening right now that is focused on the human-equine bond, which dovetails beautifully with the work we are doing in equine-assisted activities research. 

HHRF: What are flaws you see in research projects that you do NOT recommend for funding?

CT: The most important thing for an applicant to do is to read the recommendations on the website about what we are funding and what we want included in the proposals. The majority of ‘no’s have not provided information we need, like full details their budget or literature review. I am aware of the majority of what is out there in terms of articles, so if someone says there is nothing out there when I know that there is, I am not going to be impressed. It’s a lot easier to do that research now with the internet, too. The other thing is methodology. It must be replicable. You have to be absolutely clear in what you are doing, and if you are not, it’s a red flag to me. Realistic time limits also matter. For example, giving yourself 2 weeks to write a final report is not long enough. And lastly, pilot studies. There is no excuse for not having pilot studies. At Universities there are undergrads who will be happy to help conduct one for you. Also you can expand on existing research in the field, and that basically gives you a pilot study to reference.

HHRF: What do you hope to see in future research applications/projects?

CT: I’d really like to see more randomized control trials, particularly in mental health. Just using a wait list control and EFP rather than comparing conventional therapy with EAAT and having a true control, doesn’t provide the evidence we need to convince insurance companies to fund this type of therapy. So for newer areas of research, showing that that the treatment is as effective or more effective than conventional therapy, and is as cost effective too, is very important. The equine facilitated psychotherapy field, for example, is not even 25 years old, so it’s not surprising that the good research has only started to come out in the last 5 years.

I would also love to see some truly randomized control trials that compare equine assisted psychotherapy, animal-assisted therapy, wilderness therapy and conventional therapy. We may need to find funding sources outside of HHRF to do this. If these alternative therapy fields come together in research we have a stronger case with insurance. And it helps clients too, to decide what to do and what is best at a given time. 

HHRF: Any advice for future applicants?

CT: Be clear and if you’re unfortunate to get me, know that I will cross check your reference list with your literature review. So let your undergrads do that extra work for you!

HHRF: What are the emerging trends in the field of EAA research?

CT: We are seeing more quantitative work on things like cortisol and the heart math. Also people researching the influence of equine-assisted therapies for returning military veterans with PTSD. A lot of research is happening with kids with development disorders. Even a little bit is being done with Native Americans and kids who are incarcerated. In every aspect there seems to be an increase in research, as if everyone is trying to get research to fit whatever their interest and client populations are. I think this is a great thing. 

The biggest shift at HHRF was by far Tim Shurtleff’s first research application. It was literally a joy for me to review that first grant application from him. It was so far beyond what anyone has done in terms of the caliber of the proposal. What he has done for hippotherapy as a result of that research is unbelievable. It would be great to see something of that caliber happen with the equine-facilitated mental health and education realms. 

HHRF: What will research do for the EAA field?

CT: The biggest thing is to legitimize it. I don’t mind being on the fringes. But making a decent living as a practitioner or as a facility is important, and this work must be legitimized by someone other than yourself or your clients to achieve that. What we’re trying to do with this research is show that these treatment options are available, they do work, and they can transform people in ways that nothing else can. All of those alternative therapies – equine- and animal-assisted, wilderness and horticultural therapies - the change you see in people in a short period when it is practiced right is amazing. A brief encounter can make a phenomenal difference. 

HHRF:  Why is Horses and Humans Research Foundation's work and mission important?

I love the group of people. I think that everything is thought out and reasoned in terms of funding excellent research that is going to support the field worldwide. That creates a huge benefit to clients, practitioners and communities. With the military, it is a massively important social piece as well.

janet wilkinson