equine therapyIn the fascinating new field of equine therapy, there are a litany of activities that can be performed with the horse, and amongst these, an even greater number of potentially promising outcomes.

While in the majority of the evaluations of these interventions, the focus is on the therapeutic impact on the client, what is often lost is the effect exercises performed in the name of equine therapy may have on the horse.

As an example, one of the activities commonly performed as a completion of the equine therapy sessions, or workshop is painting the horse. Here, clients are given several buckets of colored paint and instructed to “decorate” their equine partner. Granted, the programs who offer this activity will proclaim that it is both therapeutic and not harmful for the horse (they state that the paint used is nontoxic), yet one must ask, is any activity that carries even the slightest chance of harm to an animal “therapeutic”?

Even further, behavior based equine therapy programs often look solely at the client’s behavior and responses to determine the efficacy of the program. For example, “Was the client able to get the horse to perform the intended task — such as jump over a log?” The response of the horse, on the other hand, is typically not taken into account. And for an animal that is uniquely tuned to notice the most minuscule threats in the environment, again, one must wonder if having inexperienced people forcing activities that are frequently very unnatural is healthy.

Now factor into the equation that some equine therapy programs offer certifications as “equine therapists” in as little as three days. How is it that a person with little or no horse experience can be trained to interpret and understand the very subtle language of the horse enough to prevent harm to him. Or no less important prevent harm that may come to the client from a terrorized horse? This question becomes implicitly important when considering that when the horse is forced to perform activities that make little or no sense to him, and his emotional well being is jeopardized, he will eventually do the only thing he knows to do in situations such as this — and that is run.

But an even larger question remains: How can practicing therapists expect a positive therapeutic outcome when the environment is not therapeutic for all parties involved — including the horse? Wouldn’t this be a little like conducting a family session that is emotionally detrimental to one family member in the name of helping the other? How can the wellbeing of the one who is intended to be helped possibly be improved by witnessing another human’s suffering? The case, in fact, is no different when working with horses.

The therapy session should always include the horse, with questions such as, “Is the horse understanding what is asked of him?” “Is he in agreement with the goals of the session?” “Is the horse’s voice being heard?” and perhaps the most important, “Is the horse better for the equine therapy session?”

Photo by Daisyree Bakker, available under a Create Commons attribution license.