I recently received a phone call from a gentleman asking whether my Introductory Exploration Training in Equine and Animal Assisted Therapy would certify him to develop his own horse program for youth at risk, and if he really had to work with a psychologist. When I explained that we don’t offer our own certification program but instead discuss nationally recognised options, some of which the Healing Hooves training qualify towards, he interrupted me stating he needed to know he would be certified before committing to any training. While I was explaining that the whole area of certification was quite complex, and depended on what credentials and experience he – and his potential partner – already possessed, and upon what he was hoping to do in the field, he hung up.

Unfortunately, these conversations are not uncommon, and this inquirer likely found elsewhere the quick certification program he sought. Next year he may be teaching his own.

This call did prompt me to revisit the whole issue of certification, and to try to elucidate my response to some critical questions regarding the delivery of training and services, and the development of certification programs, in the fields of Equine and Animal Assisted Therapy.

My Personal Experience Entering the Equine and Animal Assisted Therapy Field

When I started exploring working with people and animals over twenty years ago a major challenge was the lack of options for training, and the simple fact that few people knew what it was I was trying to do. I became very used to puzzled expressions and the “you want to do what? … with whom?…. why?” responses I elicited on a regular basis.

My approach was to gain as much experience and training as I could, in as many relevant areas as possible. During the first few years I traveled to the US and the UK to find established programs to intern with, while completing graduate and then post graduate studies in counselling, research and ethics; I volunteered and later worked with both therapeutic riding programs and counselling agencies, completed horsemanship training, and took a year long graduate course in Animal Assisted Therapy. In time I gained additional training in developmental psychology, attachment, trauma and other horsemanship approaches, and became certified as a Provincial Trainer with the Alberta Equestrian Federation (AEF) all of which I have integrated into the work I now do.

This all helped me develop a practice which reflects my training and education. I stay within my scope of practice with regards to my counselling approach, my horse experience and the populations I work with. I volunteer and work closely with certification bodies, which are independent of my own private practice, to help establish and maintain standards of practice and certification requirements in the field. And even though I have been doing this for almost twenty years now, and train and mentor many other professionals, I still access supervision from, consult regularly with, and at times refer clients to other mental health and horse professionals who have strengths in areas where I may not.

The Current Dilemma

Now, as the practice of incorporating interactions with horses into a wide variety of approaches to human personal and professional development and healing has made exponential leaps in popularity and public awareness, the challenges facing new people entering the profession have changed. It is no longer hard to find any number of certification workshops and programs in EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy), EEL (Equine Experiential Learning), EAPD (Equine Assisted Professional Development) and a wide variety of other acronyms. When I googled “Equine Facilitated Wellness Certification” recently, I got more than 22,000 hits.

The challenge has now become choosing between the various offerings and ascertaining the credibility and usefulness of the training and certification you walk away with. Some programs will certify you in a weekend, others will take you a year or more and much more money. Some have pre-requisites such as a master’s degree in mental health or a minimum number of years working with horses, others have none. Some are recognized by independent certification bodies, many more are not. The sad fact is that the whole area of certification seems to risk falling deeper into a battlefield where different practitioners, horse trainers, corporate trainers, mental health professionals, educators and more, argue about who has the “best’ approach, and criticize the approaches of their competitors.

Perhaps it is simply human nature to become territorial and competitive, especially when we have all invested so much in our own training and in developing our own practices. Or perhaps some of us are deciding that there is more money to be made in training new people entering the field than there is in actually providing the services to our clients.

I hope not.

I hope that we, as a profession who claim to be self-aware, cooperative and helpful can walk our talk and to rise above these financial and narcissistic temptations, to truly put the interests of the clients and horses we work with, and profess to be trying to help, ahead of those of our pocket books and egos.

One positive aspect of the controversy in this area is that ethics and safety are increasingly being raised and discussed. There is growing awareness of a wide range of ethical responsibilities and considerations, and that safety goes far beyond wearing a helmet and having your clients complete a waiver.

Emotional Safety – With Regards to Both Clients and Horses

Anyone working with people and horses has an ethical responsibility to ensure that the services being provided are safe – both physically and emotionally – for both the clients being served and the horses we are working with. When the clients we are working with are particularly vulnerable, for example due to their age, mental health, emotional or developmental needs, the responsibility and duty of care increase further.

One current area of debate is whether a human services professional or a horse professional need to work together in this field, whether they can be ‘dual certified’ or whether they can sometimes work alone. I am aware of many reasons put forward to working alone and with my individual clients I frequently do work alone (group work always involves a team approach). The children and adolescents I work with usually come to Healing Hooves after more traditional counselling has not worked for them. They may have been assessed and diagnosed by a psychologist, then removed from their home by a social worker. Many of them have decided that adults, and particularly ‘professionals’, are not to be trusted. Simply being here with an adult and professional, when they feel they have felt hurt and let down by so many of us, is monumental. If there were two of us, many of them simply could not do it. Add to that the financial challenges of paying for the services of two professionals for one client and I well understand the desire to work alone.

As significant and valid as these reasons are, they cannot take precedence over the safety of the clients and horses involved in this work.

Focusing on the Client at the Expense of the Horse

A program or approach which focuses upon human needs or opportunities at the expense of the well-being (including emotional) of the horse is not, in my opinion, ethical nor will it be beneficial for anyone in the long term. Our horses do not submit an application form stating they want a counselling position at our programs; 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 our horse partners are happy in their work and are being treated with integrity and respect. There is risk that a human services practitioner with limited horse experience, or limited experience with the specific horses and interactions being worked with, may misinterpret, misunderstand or miss altogether the impact that the interaction they are facilitating has on the horse.

Lets look at a hypothetical case study:

We have a mental health professional (‘Jodie’) working with a client with a history of abuse (‘Lucy’) on boundaries, assertiveness and personal empowerment. The chosen exercise is to attempt a join up in the round pen with Jodie coaching Lucy to become more assertive through her body language and intent. However, the chosen horse (‘Star’) has also been abused and has his own anxiety and confusion around the exercise and approach. As Lucy is coached to become more assertive Star becomes more fearful. Jodie sees a formerly submissive client ‘claim back her power’ and assert her intent in the presence of a 1000lbs of horse she was initially terrified of. After a lot of time and effort (which shows Jodie that Lucy can be persistent and try different approaches) the exercise concludes with Lucy getting Star to follow her around the ring with no halter or rope. If she can achieve this here just imagine what she can now do with the men in her life!

Star, on the other hand, sees a predator who initially acted quite harmless suddenly try a variety of approaches to chase him around in an enclosed space where there is no escape. Star, being more sensitive to underlying emotions and energy than most people, picks up on the suppressed rage inside Lucy and is triggered back to his own abuse at the hands of a human being. He expresses his anxiety the only way he can – through his body language: he poops, he runs, he looks for a way out – but neither of the humans working with Star understand his language. Eventually he gives up, just as he had to when previously abused, and follows the predator around the round pen. Star is returned to his field re-traumatised, while Jodie and Lucy return triumphantly to debrief the learnings from the exercise.

The next session Jodie is confused, and Lucy devastated, when the horse they believed Lucy had developed a deep and meaningful relationship with won’t let her within 20 feet of him in the field. Lucy interprets this as yet another rejection and Jody asks for another horse.

Ultimately nobody has gained.

Focusing on the Horse at the Expense of the Client

On the other hand, a program can protect the interests of the horse and neglect or miss the emotional impact and potential trauma being experienced by the client. A horse professional with limited mental health or counselling experience may misinterpret, misunderstand or miss altogether the impact that the exercises and interactions they are facilitating are having on the client.

If we take the same example as above – but this time we have a horse professional – ‘Mary’ – working with the same client, horse and exercise.

Initially Lucy is very tentative and afraid of Star who seems so big and uncontrollable to her. Mary coaches her to read Star’s body language and to see that he is responding to her and reflecting her body language and intent; if Lucy is submissive Star will ignore her but if she increases her energy and level of assertiveness he will start to respect her. Lucy has only ever had two approaches modeled to her in her human relationships: submissive and aggressive, so as she tries to understand and follow Mary’s directions and become more assertive she starts to act quite aggressively.

Star’s body language tells Mary that he is confused and scared. Mary starts to interpret this for Lucy instructing her to slow down because what she is doing is scaring the horse who sees her as a predator. Lucy is confused by the changing directions and by her own emotions and by accident she hits the rope loudly against her boots. Star is frightened by the sudden noise and kicks out at Lucy who is terrified and runs out of the ring. Mary is able to coach Lucy back in to the ring explaining that Star had only kicked because Lucy had frightened him and that they need to work together to calm Star down and show him that he can trust them. Lucy submissively obeys Mary and fearfully follows her directions to rub the horse. Star senses Lucy’s fear and confusion and dances away from her preferring to stand by Mary. All the time she is doing this Lucy is being triggered to the numerous times her ex husband would hit her and then tell her it was her fault because she made him do it. Many times, for example if Lucy spoke to another man, her husband would beat her later saying it was because he didn’t feel he could trust her. Lucy realizes that he must have been right because the same thing has just happened with Star. Mary is not very familiar with the dynamic of family violence and abuse and Lucy, who is well practiced at hiding her emotions, does not enlighten her.

Protecting the Interests of Both Client and Horse

To safely and effectively deliver services which bring humans and horses together in a therapeutic or personal development environment, I believe that an individual or team requires appropriate and adequate training, skills, experience, supervision and monitoring in regards to all of the following:

(1) The therapy or other service being delivered (e.g. counselling or life coaching);

(2) The animals being incorporated into the therapy or service (e.g. horses, dogs or cats);

(3) The specific human/ animal interaction (e.g. equine facilitated counselling or equine facilitated learning); and

(4) The specific population being served (e.g. survivors of family violence or youth at risk).

In my opinion, the specifics of what is ‘appropriate and adequate’ in each of the above areas can only be credible and effective when they are developed and monitored by an organization that is not also in the business of providing training. This removes the conflicting interests of personal gain and ensures that the focus is upon developing standards and certifying professionals that will best serve the needs and protect the interests of our clients and of our horses. This also follows International and Canadian best standards that call for the clear separation of certification and training as detailed in ISO/IEC 17024, Conformity assessment – General Requirements for bodies operating certification of persons.

In Canada this is provided by The Professional Association for Equine Facilitated Wellness (Pro-EFW), a national organization comprising a multidisciplinary group of professionals, including horse professionals, mental health professionals and other human services practitioners. The resulting standards have the benefits of being field generated from best practices, of being developed by a multidisciplinary team of leaders in the profession, and are independent of any one organisation that provides training.

In the US similar processes have been developed within PATH International for the equine professionals, and by the Certified Board for Equine Interaction Professionals for the mental health and education professionals.

If one person can show that they meet all the above requirements then Pro-EFW allows that person to work alone for individual work, provided they are seeking supervision where needed. In all other cases a team approach is required. If it is a team delivering these services, then Pro-EFW require one person to be credentialed in the human services approach being delivered AND meet a minimum level of experience with horses while the equine professional must possess equine professional credentials/ experience AND meet a minimum level of experience in the relevant human services approach. Both members of the team also receive training in EFW.

It is my sincere hope that the wide variety of organizations currently offering their own private certification programs will choose to work collaboratively with the national process rather than choosing to work individually and competitively. If the current minefield of certification is confusing to us, just imagine how it appears to a prospective client!

Questions to Ask a Service Provider

Finally, if you are currently in the position of making decisions regarding selecting a training or certification program, or if you are trying to choose a practitioner in the field and want to understand what training and credentials they possess, I hope that the following list of questions may help guide your process. This is not intended as a complete list but will hopefully help and inspire you to develop your own questions to help you make informed choices.

  1. What are the human services credentials held by the people delivering the therapy/ training, and do they match the service being provided/ taught? In other words, can they show some credentials in the field they claim to be working and/ or instructing within (e.g. as a counsellor, life coach or psychologist)? Ideally a practitioner should be able to show you a current certificate showing membership in good standing with a credible professional association.
  2. What experience/ training does the practitioner or trainer have with horses? This is sometimes harder to define than the credentials in the human service field, but being able to demonstrate years of experience, particularly with regards to coaching novices, and some form of certification in the equine field (e.g. through Equine Canada, Pony Club, Certified Horsemanship Association etc.) would be ideal.
  3. What training and experience does the practitioner/ trainer have in the actual interaction being provided or taught? (e.g. Equine Facilitated Wellness or animal assisted therapy)?
  4. Can the practitioner define their ‘Scope of Practice’ to you in a way that makes it understandable what they are qualified to do, and what falls outside their area of expertise?
  5. If selecting a trainer, does this trainer also actually work in the field of providing the therapy/ interaction they are training you in?
  6. If selecting a certification program does that certification organisation require you to complete their training to gain their certification, or are they independent of and separate from the training they recognize?

This field continues to develop rapidly, and as in any new field there will be many more bumps along the road and challenges to overcome. But it is my hope that the physical and emotional wellbeing of our horses and our clients can remain paramount throughout this journey.

© Sue McIntosh MA CCC originally written in 2011, updated in 2018

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