Ph.D. Graduate: A love for horses influences Rebecca Lassell’s career path

Recently graduated with a Ph.D. from Colorado State University, Rebecca Lassell enjoyed participating in equestrian activities with her horse at a young age. Later, she learned about occupational therapy and realized she could combine this passion into a rewarding career and be able to conduct research that would benefit others. Read more about her journey and then ultimately earning her Ph.D. from the Department of Occupational Therapy’s Occupation and Rehabilitation Science Program.

Share about your background

Rebecca LassellI spent my early years on the East Coast, but grew up mostly in Dayton, Ohio. Growing up in Dayton, I developed a life-long passion for horses and eventually bought my first horse in high school. Participating with my horse in the equestrian activities of hunter/jumper and dressage brought me such joy and I credit my relationship with my horse for keeping me grounded through stressful life events. Later, I graduated from Marian University with two bachelor of art degrees, one in sports performance and the other in communications.

When I first discovered occupational therapy, I was intrigued because I’ve been continually fascinated by the relationship between what people do and their health and well-being. After shadowing an occupational therapist at the Children’s TherAplay Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana, I was hooked! I watched as the occupational therapist incorporated play activities in the clinic and on a horse to develop skills in a range of children with a variety of diagnoses and needs. What better job than being able to play and incorporate horses in meaningful ways to help others! This shadowing experience led me to earn my Master of Occupational Therapy from Shawnee State University.

Later, I went on to work at Children’s TherAply Foundation, which coupled with my Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities Fellowship at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Riley Child Development Center, instilled a desire to improve clinical practice through innovative evidence-based approaches. Particularly in my practice, I was struck by the motivating power of the horse in other aspects besides mounted activities and I realized that most of the research relating to occupational therapy focused on the movement of the horse during mounted activities, while occupations with horses on the ground and within the greater equine environment were overlooked. This desire to bolster evidence-based practice in an equine environment led me to pursue my Ph.D.

Why did you choose to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Occupation and Rehabilitation Science?

Two people were pivotal in my decision to start my Ph.D. journey in Occupation and Rehabilitation Science, my dear friend and career mentor, Beth Fields, and my doctoral mentor, Wendy Wood. I met both of them at the American Hippotherapy Association Conference, where I learned of their research at the Temple Grandin Equine Center and Beth’s experience as a Ph.D. student in Occupation and Rehabilitation Science at CSU. In speaking with them, I realized that having a strong background in occupational science and rehabilitation science provided a unique lens for understanding the relationship between occupations, health, and well-being across the lifespan and how they may relate to a person’s experience of disability and function. I felt this unique lens would provide a solid foundation for understanding occupations within the equine environment and how they may translate to health-related outcomes across populations.

What have been your most rewarding experiences or accomplishments as a Ph.D. student?

Rebecca Lassell and friends standing by a horse and its rider
Left to right: Wendy Wood, Caiti Peters, Beth Fields, Rebecca Lassell, Christof Bentele and Sarah Busselman (on horse)

I’ve had so many rewarding experiences during my Ph.D. at CSU! One rewarding experience was being a research assistant on Wood’s team studying equine-assisted services. As part of the team, I was given the opportunity to contribute to the research of equine-assisted services, as well as mentoring an honors thesis student. In addition, I was given an incredible opportunity to be a part of the Enriched Aging research team at CSU. The team involved faculty and students in architecture, communication, human development and family studies, music therapy, psychology, sociology, and virtual reality. While my main role on the team pertained to my dissertation work, I was able to collaborate with the team to create common measures across several community-based studies to track the influence of participation in symphonies, music, art, and dance on health-related outcomes for people living with dementia and their care partners.

My most rewarding experience was conducting my dissertation research, which involved collaborating with community partners to advance the science behind an adaptive riding intervention for people living with dementia and their care partners and to develop an adaptive gardening intervention for comparison. Here, I was enriched through my relationships with the community partners and students who helped implement the interventions and also by seeing the smiles on the participants and care partners’ faces as they participated in gardening or horsemanship activities.

What have you enjoyed the most about Fort Collins?

Rebecca Lassell and her family
Rebecca and her family

I love the mountains and the family friendly vibe of Fort Collins! Some of my fondest memories with my family have been hiking and exploring the local parks and bike paths. In addition, we’ve enjoyed the local breweries and coffee shops (pre-COVID).

What are your future plans with your Ph.D. degree?

I’ve accepted a postdoctoral position at New York University where I will gain skills in intervention implementation and health services outcomes in the context of a pragmatic clinical trial with a focus on health disparities in people with dementia and their care partners. Long-term, I hope to continue my dissertation research as a faculty member in an occupational therapy department at a research intensive university.

The Department of Occupational Therapy is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.