This is an old article (written in 2007) but the principals still apply. If you visit us you will discover Skye, Dubh and Disa are much older now (30, 31 and 22) but still wonderfully active members of the Healing Hooves Herd!
One of the most memorable lessons from my graduate studies was one of the simplest. I can clearly remember our professor taking a jug of orange juice and using it to fill a number of glasses. Before long the jug was empty and there was no juice left for the remaining glasses. “This will be you” she told us, pointing at the empty jug, “unless you learn to practice self care”. The basic message? A counselor can’t keep giving out and helping her clients unless she takes time to refill that metaphorical jug of orange juice.
At Healing Hooves we strongly believe that the horses who work with us are also counsellors; so it follows that our four legged co-counsellors and partners also need their jugs refilled, although they may prefer oats to orange juice.
My horses did not submit an application form stating they wanted a counselling position at Healing Hooves; they can’t lodge a complaint with human resources that they are being asked to do tasks outside of their job description; and they can’t ask their doctor to sign them off on stress leave. It is up to us, the humans they work with and depend upon, to ensure that EFW (Equine Facilitated Wellness) horses are happy in their work and are being treated with integrity and respect. I will attempt to explore ways to do this it in the context of some of the Healing Hooves horses, their individual needs and challenges. With each horse I will attempt to identify the key temptation or ethical pitfall they present. I will then discuss some of the ways we are trying to ensure we overcome those temptations to make sure we respect and protect our horses’ rights. Ensuring horses’ physical health and well being has been the subject of many articles and books written by many authors significantly more qualified on that topic than myself. Thus the focus of this article will be upon the emotional needs and challenges of horses within an EFW program.
Skye is my anxious horse. He has experienced abuse (from both humans and horses), grief, trauma and loss. And he wears his heart on his fetlock. Yet while Skye has many reasons not to trust he still looks for the best in people and is always the first one over to eagerly greet a new group of clients.
When I first met Skye nine years ago, he used to rear and/ or take off the moment he felt threatened in any way (a very regular occurrence as he was deathly scared of cows, ropes, blankets, other horses, cameras, hose pipes, water – you name it) and I saw the whites of his eyes almost all of the time. While he is now very different on the outside, and has in fact graduated from the bullied horse to the leader of my herd, he is still a fairly anxious horse on the inside. All of this makes him, when matched with the right client, an extremely effective therapy horse and he has helped many children and adults overcome their own fears and discover their own unique strengths and abilities.
So many hurting children – and adults – have found in Skye a soul mate who truly seems to understand their pain and to want to travel with them on their journey through that pain to true happiness. In this case I also speak from personal experience since Skye came to me at a very traumatic time in my life when I was very vulnerable and desperately needed that empathy and connection. However, his past experiences and his personality also make him very vulnerable, and I think he skipped the class which told him not to take his clients issues home with him. It would be easy, at least in the short term, to ‘use’ Skye to benefit my clients and myself at a cost to his emotional and mental health and well being.
So how do we make sure that we do not do this?
I closely monitor who gets to work with Skye. He does not handle angry clients well (and quickly picks up on the anger many clients hold under the surface) so I gently steer these clients towards a different horse. I tell people how sensitive he is and show them how to treat him gently, to read his body language, and to respect his feelings. And I debrief with him after virtually every session. It may be a quick hug and a kind word, or it may be a gentle trail ride. I find that Skye brings out the gentle side in my clients and that they become very protective over him – to the extent that I have to start watching for the other side of the coin where he gets cheeky and takes advantage of their concern to avoid doing any work!
Star right now is my problem child. Like Skye she too has experienced abuse, grief and loss. She’s been here for eight months now, and while we never will know the full details of what she has experienced, we are piecing it together from her behaviour and from the little we have been told. We know that she at one time had a reasonably stable home but somehow ended up at an auction where she was almost sold for meat. At that same auction she was separated from her un-weaned 3 year old colt to spend a year with a well meaning man with no horse experience and not enough time. During that time she was separated from her herd and left alone for many months; she gained about 300lb in weight. When she first arrived at Healing Hooves Star was very hard to catch and the moment she felt at all threatened turned to ‘fight’ mode and would line you up. The first time I brought her into my arena she didn’t stop trembling once. It has been a hard road for Star so far. She has improved significantly; she’s now relatively easy to catch, has lost about 200lbs, and hasn’t tried to kick me in at least a month. She’s shown me that she is very eager and able to learn and has responded very well to natural horsemanship training. And every so often she shows us the incredibly sweet and tender personality that she spends most of her time hiding underneath all that anger. However, she is now at a crossroads where she hasn’t quite committed herself to being here – she has progressed but she is still very easily triggered, she’ll do great one day then shun you the next. She is suffering in the herd as she flips from being timid to inappropriately aggressive. It seems like she hasn’t fully decided to trust us, herself or life in general. In this way she is very similar to a large proportion of my clients and as such is providing me with an unending amount of therapeutic material. At some level it is tempting to ask her to linger at those crossroads a little longer since her struggles are helping a lot of my clients understand theirs’. And if in the future it becomes clear that EFW is not the best work for her well being it could be tempting to keep her anyway, rather than finding her a private home where she can flourish. So how do I ensure that I do not submit to these temptations at the cost of Star’s mental and emotional health? I keep working with her to help her work these things through. I have a trainer helping and advising me on what she needs, and my clients and I celebrate every step forward she is able to take. If we do come to a stage where it becomes clear that this is not the best place or job for her then I will make the hard decision to start looking for a new home (with a good buy back clause of course!).
Dubh is what my clients like to call my ‘bad ass’ horse. He’s actually quite mellow nowadays but can certainly have his grumpy days and is extremely good at communicating when he is unhappy with you. In his younger days he was pony of the year in the US, competing and placing in horse trials at the intermediate level (despite being only 14.2hh) and was worth a lot of money. A few years later he was retired early for ‘behavioural problems’ and was described by his trainer as being ‘out of control’. We don’t know exactly what happened but are very pleased that he was still owned by the lady who bred him and that she decided to virtually donate him to us rather than expose him to potential harm if he remained on the competitive circuit.
When he first came to Healing Hooves Dubh was very suspicious of us – especially when I headed out to the fields with a grooming kit and the rest of my horses all lined up (OK jostled) to be groomed and fussed over. I got the distinct impression that he considered this all very unprofessional and didn’t understand why the horses were not all cross tied. He has calmed down significantly over the past five years and has even become tolerant. He is very popular with clients, especially those who have also been told they have a ‘bad attitude’; and they all want to ride him. However, Dubh is still a highly trained horse who was accustomed to being ridden by experienced riders and can sometimes have a short fuse and intolerance for too many inexperienced riders. So how do I ensure he remains safe for my clients to ride but at the same time feels fulfilled in his own life?
The answer to this one is simple: I ride him as often as I can. I take lessons on him. As he’s calmed down I’ve even started to jump him again. And when I don’t have enough time myself I pay a trainer to ride him. I also watch his behaviour very carefully and if he seems to be a bit grumpier than usual I know its time to head out on the trail to let off a little steam. While this is especially relevant for a horse like Dubh it is also a principal which I believe applies to all horses: No horse can be an EFW horse 100% of the time. After all as human facilitators we take time off and interact with many people other than our clients. Our horses need this too. This means plenty of pasture time with their herd mates and plenty of riding – including fun trail rides – by experienced riders.
On the graffiti wall in our barn a teenage client has written “Disa should be a Saint”. A 12.3hh Icelandic mare, she is calm, quiet and tolerant even by Icelandic standards. She is the horse that my two and four year old daughters ride; she works with special needs children, with the parents coming to family sessions who are terrified of horses, and with the timid child at camp who’d really prefer a guinea pig. Nothing seems to faze her and she seems to take everything in her stride; she certainly does seem to be a saint.
It is very tempting to simply assume that because she is so quiet and appears so unfazed by everything that we can do pretty much anything to her, ask anything of her and that she’ll be OK. It’s tempting to view her as the proverbial (and in my mind non existent) ‘bomb proof pony’. But just because she doesn’t show any stress on the outside does not mean she does not feel it on the inside. Just because she does not (yet) demand any special treatment does not mean that she does not deserve or need it.
So I require my clients and volunteers to show Disa the same amount of respect and courtesy as they show my other horses. We may match her with the scared client but we don’t allow a client to scream while riding her; while a client with unpredictable behaviour may be redirected from Skye towards Disa, that client is closely supervised and there is zero tolerance of any abusive behaviour. And I watch Disa closely for any more subtle signs of stress. While much of the above is specific to the individual horse and requires judgment and time to work out, there are also many general principals which apply to the well being of all EFW horses regardless of their individual personalities, needs and past experiences. These will inevitable reflect the values which you apply at your program and I believe deserve to be thought about, written down and communicated to all who participate in your program and interact with your horses. We do this through our Code of Ethics which has a section dedicated to how we treat our horses.
Learning to Walk the Talk
Leaving what I see as the most important point to last: you can talk values, write down ethical statements and debate your horses’ needs and rights till the cows come home. But what your horses really care about and what your clients really absorb is what you do. They care about action not words. It doesn’t matter how much you claim you respect or love your horse, if you don’t show it through what you do then your horses won’t trust you, and neither will your clients. Because whoever we are working with our relationship with our horses serves as a role model for our clients, gives our clients valuable information about how we – and others – might treat them and teaches them how to treat others – horses and people – in their lives.