Foley Hart enjoys some quality time with her family. Pictured from left to right: Bristol, Madison, Nolan and Blake (held by Hart).

Can horses and sunshine make you happy?

Foley Hart, a Kent School of Social Work graduate student, thinks so and will soon launch a study to examine how the outdoors — including contact with horses — might help people with depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Hart, who graduates May 12 with a master’s degree in social work, said her interest in the topic evolved over several years and was influenced by her military experience, a newfound interest in horses and coursework at the Kent School.

“I just put all of the pieces together,” Hart said. “I’m drawn to help individuals who have major depressive order and PTSD. My thinking was to find ways to make treatment more affordable and to embrace natural therapies.”

Hart has landed a job with Healing Trails, an Ohio-based nonprofit that specializes in equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP). In this new role, she will earn EAP certification, work with girls aged 13-17 who have faced trauma, and conduct research on how lifestyle can influence mental health.

“I will be looking specifically at how various aspects of a person’s life (such as their diet, exercise, amount of time spent outdoors, etc.) can impact the success or failure of their therapy plan,” Hart said. “The Kent School set me up with a foundation that gave me the confidence to pursue this particular path in therapy and I feel very lucky to be a part of it all.”

While other studies have examined the correlation between the outdoors and depression, Hart says few of those studies adhere to research evidence examining protocols.

A Texas native, Hart graduated in 2012 from University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in psychology and, building on her college ROTC experience, joined the Army and went to Fort Knox for military training.

“I started looking into horses after moving to Kentucky,” she said. “I was inspired by a friend who was into horse racing and he showed me ‘the horse life.’”

Hart started working on her UofL degree in 2014 and completed her coursework online while serving in Kuwait. She has never set foot on a UofL campus.

She remains on active duty until September and is currently stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. After she moves to Ohio to begin her career in social work, she will also take command of the 304th Engineer Company, based in Lima.

In what seems like destiny, the move to Ohio also means that Hart’s husband, John, will realize his own dream of taking over the family farm, which is located nearby. The Harts, who have four children in their blended family, plan to live on the farm.

Hart said she appreciates how much UofL has done to help her realize her dreams.

“Kent School has been so wonderful and flexible in allowing me to juggle work, family and school,” she said. “Without this support, I don’t know if I ever could have completed my degree.”