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 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 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 the horse in your work has an significant impact upon how you approach this work and, I believe, upon how this work is likely to affect – positively or negatively – your horses’ well being and longevity in this work.

The Longer Answer

Note: If you are unsure of any of the terminology or acronyms we use here please refer to our earlierblog post where we define and review common Equine Therapy terms for you.

Ethics around the impact of this work upon the horse 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 as Sentient being’ philosophy advocated by EFW Canada and several other professional organisations in the EFW field.

‘Sentience’ is defined as being capable of experiencing and feeling emotion, and is usually partnered with a belief around the need for horses 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.”

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

From this flows many other important aspects regarding the role of the horse in your work. This is a big topic which is dependent upon many factors including how you view the horse from above, and other aspects of the approach you follow. But some factors of relevance, each of which we will discuss in more depth at a later stage, 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.
  • 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 not that it also creates an increased duty of care.
  • The presence of the horses can motivate a client to attend 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.
  • 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
  • Horses offer us lots of experiential opportunities to learn about and develop improved relationship skills including enhanced understanding of body language, boundaries.

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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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