When equine therapy first became popular as a therapeutic modality, it found it’s way into many addiction treatment centers. At the same point in time, the theory of dual diagnosis — where addicts are understood to have a secondary diagnosis in addition to an addiction — was also gaining ground.
As more and more sufferers of addiction were found to have experienced trauma that might be at the root of their proclivity for addictive substances, the thought was that introducing horses that have also been abused in some way, would help these patients relate to the horses, and consequentially, their own traumas.
However, during this time, the thought of particular breeds being more adept as therapy horses was not considered. Yet for the horse experts who were often employed to work alongside the therapists in the equine therapy sessions, this was clearly a question worth pondering. And to those who have spent years showing, riding and training horses, the idea that breed does not influence personality, behavioral characteristics, and certainly ability to work in the therapeutic capacity, would be absurd.
Yet even given the breed differences that are clear to people familiar with horses, the calling of a therapy horse is somewhat unique. Not asked to “perform” in typical horse events, the therapy horse is asked to do something that most people, themselves, struggle with.
He is expected to be ability to interpret the underlying thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the person. While the outward responses a person can have to many situations are frequently obvious to those around him, what the therapist is most concerned with is what is not said, expressed, or otherwise made obvious. For this, she turn to the horse. Through the horse’s responses to the person, the hope is that often unconscious motives will be revealed. Then once this shadowed self is out in the open for not only the therapist, but also the patient to see, internal conflicts can be resolved.
So is it possible then, that some breeds of horses are better interpreters of hidden human emotion? Certainly it is well accepted that some cultures of people are more emotionally receptive and expressive than others, and the argument could be made that this also makes them more perceptive to hidden emotion. Emotional categorization — or the testing of the ability to read, and categorize emotion — has also revealed significant individual differences in people.
While with horses, we don’t test these things, perhaps in more subtle ways we do. Breeders and trainers of horses have historically attempted to breed horses that exhibited specific performance capabilities, such as jumping large fences, dominating races, or performing dramatic airs above the ground. As each of these performance demands have required extreme athletic ability, the case remains that athletic ability and receptiveness to training are not mutually exclusive, for in order to meet these performance expectations, the horse had to be willing to listen to the aids, cues, and commands of the handler.
This, of course, required some ability to interpret emotional states of the human. As the trainer becomes more calm, the horse slows and quiets down, yet when the handler asks the horse to perform a more dramatic feat, such as leaping above the ground — as with the famous Lipizzan stallions — his emotional intensity would rise to cue the horse effectively. The horse who then did not interpret this correctly, would be much more difficult to train, and also much less likely to have his traits passed on, as reproduction would be halted with poor performance capacity.
Does this mean then that horse breeds who perform very well, and prove to be very trainable. would also be uniquely receptive to human emotion and the dissemination thereof? This is certainly quite possible, and some therapeutic practitioners have already considered this. However, as equine therapy is still in it’s infancy, much remains to be seen not only about the best suited breeds, but also the more effective theoretical orientations. Perhaps with the growth of this new field these questions will be answered, for now, it is safe to say that equine therapy is a promising new field.
Photo by Roger 4336, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.