The Quick Answer

It depends on your approach and who you certify with, but approaches broadly fall into two categories. One is of the ‘horse/ animal as a tool’ who is used to bring insight, learning or healing to the client. The other (followed at Healing Hooves and by EFW Canada) is of the ‘horse/ animal as a sentient being’ who you partner with in this work to jointly facilitate the potential for that insight, growth or healing in the client.

How you define and view the horse and his role in equine therapy is likely to impact many things, including:

  1. How you treat your horse;
  2. How you approach this work;
  3. How the work is likely to affect – positively or negatively – your horses’ well being;
  4. Your horses’ longevity as a therapy animal; and
  5. The extent to which you can draw upon the potential benefits of engaging in an animal assisted approach.

The Longer Answer

Note: If you are unsure of any of the terminology or acronyms we use here please refer to our earlier blog post where we define and review common Equine and Animal Assisted Therapy terms for you. Please also note that while we primarily refer to equines and EFW in this blog post, much of what we are saying applies equally to other species and to the broader field of  AAT.

Ethics around the impact of this work upon the horse (and other therapy animal) have always been important, and over the past decade awareness of this factor has greatly increased. The ‘horse as tool’ approach still exists but is not usually defined this way and even then, awareness of the impact of this work upon the horse has increased. Increasingly programs are adopting the ‘Horse/ Animal as Sentient being’ philosophy advocated by EFW Canada and several other professional organisations in the EFW and AAT fields. The aim of this post is to explore what this means, and how it impacts both how we treat our horses and how we work in the EFW and AAT fields.

‘Sentience’ is defined as being capable of experiencing and feeling emotion.

This usually partners a belief in the need for animals to be allowed to safely express these emotions.

National certification body, Equine Facilitated Wellness-Canada has the following to say about this:

Equines have their own perceptions and emotions, and can also attune themselves to the presence and feelings of others. Through their remarkable sensitivity, perceptiveness, and intuition equines are able to offer valuable feedback and information to clients. It is crucial that they are able to express themselves spontaneously and freely through their actions and reactions when working with clients.

In order to support their equine partners in this field, it is incumbent upon human facilitators to be aware of the impact that this work may have on equines, and safeguard their physical, mental and emotional well-being at all times. They must ensure that their equine partners are treated respectfully and ethically, both within and outside of client sessions. Human partners need to understand that their equine partners are completely dependent upon their stewardship, and do their utmost to meet their psychological and physical needs.”

Similarly, Pet Partners states within their AAT Handbook: “As a handler, you have a significant responsibility to the other member of your team — your animal. A close and trusting relationship is crucial for successful therapy animal visits”  and  “Being your animal’s advocate also means you make decisions based on the preference of your animal, rather than your own preference. ” 

This area of discussion is one of the most critical to consider early on in your explorations of the Equine  and Animal Assisted Therapy journey. Whether you are exploring Equine Therapy or AAT as a potential client, considering it as a new career, or adding horses or other animals into your existing practice, we highly recommend that you ask yourself what you believe about the emotional lives of animals, and how you would like to work with animals for your, your clients’ and your animals’ well being.

How we view the horse in equine therapy (or the animal in animal assisted therapy) is both impacted by and influences almost all aspects of the work and the human animal bond. It sets the tone both for how the horse is treated and cared for, and for how we are able to consciously draw upon and benefit from the horses’ wisdom and contribution to this work and relationship. 

How Does the “Horse as Sentient Being” View Impact our Approach and the Potential Benefits of Equine and Animal Assisted Therapy?

While we explore this in much more depth in our series Why Horses, some of the key considerations include the following:

Simply being with horses in a healthy environment and relationship is good for us: An ever growing body of research indicates that animals are good for our physical and emotional health, well-being and development. For example, studies show that children who have positive contact with animals tend to have higher self-esteem, and are more empathetic and nurturing. Further research shows this bond is especially powerful when we are feeling vulnerable, stressed or are facing challenges, loss or major change. Animals can help us express emotions, seek social support and problem solve.

A key pre-requisite for many of these benefits is the existence of a positive attachment between the human and animal. I would argue that this is best achieved when we value the animal as a sentient being.

Integrating horses or other animals into a healing environment can help the human facilitator provide the conditions, as defined by Carl Rogers, required for therapeutic growth to arise: Genuineness, Empathy and Unconditional Regard. While this can greatly enhance the potential for effectiveness within an EFW program, it is important to note that it also creates an increased duty of care. 

I believe horses provide these conditions whether or not we recognise and value this. However we are much more likely to build upon and benefit from these conditions if we see and work with our animals as sentient beings.

The presence of the horses can motivate someone to attend a therapy or other support session and accept help. We have had many clients who have not, for a wide variety of reasons, been willing or able to attend or engage in counselling elsewhere; coming to a place where there are animals is often different. The presence of animals can simply make it safe to show up – both physically and emotionally.

The simple presence of the horses and other animals may well be enough to motivate a client to shown up physically; It takes an environment where the animals are valued and worked with as sentient beings, I believe, to create the safety for a client to show up and engage emotionally.

Integrating horses into your approach allows you to work indirectly and one step removed. The advantages of this approach, particularly with our more vulnerable clients is discussed in the earlier articles, One (Horse Step Removed); The value of Sharing Stories and How When and To Whom to Read the Therapeutic Story, The Prodigal Pony

This approach requires us to see and reflect upon our animals as having emotions, thoughts and opinions; in other words as sentient beings.

Horses offer us lots of experiential opportunities to learn about and develop improved relationship skills including enhanced understanding of body language, non verbal communication and boundaries.

We can certainly engage in, learn and benefit from experiential work with horses and other animals while viewing the animal as a tool. In these case we are exploring our own behaviour, emotions and thought processes in relationship with ourselves, the other people involved in the exercises, or our perception of some problem or situation we see the animal as representing in that moment. All valuable opportunities to learn and grow.

Yet, if we view the animal as a sentient being, we open up so many more possibilities. Yes, the horse can provide us with a mirror, but he is also his own being, with his own emotions, thoughts, opinions and needs. Experiential work within this context provides the potential for richer, deeper and, I believe, more meaningful healing, learning and growth.

How does the “Horse as Sentient Being” view impact how we care for and treat our horses?

Again this is a huge topic and we are only scraping the very tip of the surface in this article.  Some things to consider, beyond caring for the animals’ physical needs and well-being, include:

  • The right for the horse to (safely) express discomfort, including emotional discomfort, preference, needs and opinions during and in between therapy sessions, without repercussion.
  • The right for the horse to safely say no to an activity, to working with a particular person or population, and even to this career.
  • The horses’ need to relationships with other horses, adequate time off, and time with people they are not responsible for.
  • The facilitators’ need to be able to read and respond to horses’ body language including signs of physical and emotional stress and calming signals.
  • The importance of a healthy relationship between the therapy animals and the therapist.
  • The need to emotionally support our animals during therapy sessions.
  • The need to ‘debrief’ with our therapy animals after sessions, in ways which work for them.
  • The need to screen, train and prepare our animals appropriately and adequately for this work.
  • The right for the horse to retire or find a new job when this is needed.

Understanding, monitoring and managing the therapy animals’ well being is something we explore in great depth at all of our training workshops.  Just as ‘self care’ can look different for different people, in many cases what we need to look out for and do depends on the the individual needs of each animal. For more information on this topic now please refer to our earlier article on equine therapy ethics where we explore this from a case study perspective.

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    Next Question in this series: Who Should I Certify With?

    What about you? If you have any questions you’d like us to answer in this series, or questions on any of the above material, please use the comments section below!

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