A classic article on an important question in the field of equine assisted psychotherapy and learning:


The goal in equine assisted therapy is to use interactive exercises, or “games” with horses as an innovative form of experiential therapy or personal development for people from a wide range of situations and backgrounds. From troubled teens, to family counseling, to corporate retreats aimed at empowering teamwork, leadership and communications skills, I like to think of this exciting new movement as a form of “horse sense for human potential.
Now, some of you may be asking “what, if anything, after so many of supporting and promoting the cause of EAP, does Irwin have to be opinionated about now?” Well, most importantly, I am concerned about the well being of the horses that are being “used” in therapeutic practices and I am also disturbed about the general tone or course of direction that EAP appears to be taking. Now, recent “news” developments within the field of EAP clearly indicate that I am not alone in this concern because there is now so much controversy as to the “ethics” involved in some of the leading organizations and governing bodies that promote EAP.
First, what about the horses? The vast majority of participants or “clients” attracted to an EAP experience are not well versed in the language of horses and they do not know how to be with the horses without causing confusion and/or stressful situations for our four legged friends. This would not be nearly as much of an issue if the therapists themselves had a solid working knowledge of horse sense and handling skills. However, unfortunately, most practitioners do not have these skills and therefore they often look to team up with local horse trainers who can supposedly supply the needed competency and expertise with the horses. The unspoken problem here, as many of us know, is that there are few standards and/or governing bodies that oversee the legitimacy and professionalism of horse trainers and just about anybody can, and so many do, consider and call themselves “horse trainers”. This all too often results in a case of the blind leading the blind and the horses are left paying the price for human assumptions. What is intended as an empowering “feel good” experience for the humans all too often results in exercises of annoyance, confusion, frustration and anger for the horses.
It’s all in the “approach”. I see a disturbing trend in EAP where the majority of the practices seem to be based in setting both the horse and the human up for failure. For example: A very common game or exercise among EAP practitioners is to hand a client (who has little or no experience with horses) a halter and lead rope and say to them “go catch that horse” and perhaps even “then lead it over that bridge.” The person has no clue how to appropriately approach the horse, let alone halter and lead the horse in a “user friendly” manner. It soon becomes clear that the goal is to see how the client reacts to stress, performance anxiety, and, most often, failure. Does the person become frustrated, frightened, angry, do they blame “the stupid horse”, do they shut down and withdraw, becoming sullen, do they try to bribe or coerce the horse, and are they willing to ask for help?
Whether it is in “the catching game”, in the round pen, or in any of the many games or “exercises” that facilitators are coming up with, all too often the horse is essentially used as a catalyst to provoke human emotions so that the therapists can then make the metaphorical leap from relations with horses to relations with people. “Ah_hah”, says the therapist, “Let’s look at this. Is it possible that this is also how you react at home with the kids, or with your spouse, or is this similar to how you tend to deal with conflict and control issues in the workplace?” Sounds great, but what about the horse? How do the horses feel about being subjected to people who are confusing, invasive, contradictory and often frustrating? Throughout this process the horse has had, in the truest sense of the word, people who are unaware of its needs basically using it as a tool for their benefit. All too often I see the body language of horses who are clearly demonstrating that they are not at all happy with our “games”. Leave it to humans to design a warm and fuzzy “feel good” experience for people with horses but completely forget about the needs of the horse! Isn’t this just another example of the human tendency to “put the cart before the horse”?
Nobody enjoys failure, not the people or the horses. If we make it a goal with our clients that our primary focus is not necessarily or directly aimed at their “therapy”, but instead the mission is to first and foremost empathetically work with the needs of the horse, we are then setting the stage for a truly empowering situation for all players of the game. To focus on learning to work with “what the horse needs to see as a change in the basic nature of people”, the needs of the horses, so that the client can truly earn a willing partnership from the horse, is to practice the ability to walk the talk of respect, empathy, and “do unto others as you would have done to you.” To send an uneducated person out “to catch a horse” (capture the prey animal) is essentially validating the victimization process inherent in humans because despite the “fun” of working with horses in a personal empowerment workshop, the underlying message is “assume dominance, it’s okay to force your will and assume control of the horse, go capture him and make him do what you want.”
Enough of the darkness, what of the light? I propose that we do not need to subject horses to the fumbling, ranting, raving and assorted dramas that people bring to the arena when they hope to catch the horse and expect it to do their bidding. I also suggest that we do not need to try to empower people by first helping them process their reactions to frustration and failure. I believe that EAP can evolve into a practice that more directly involves the horse and indirectly benefits the person. The attraction of the horse is so powerful that most people do indeed want to be there in the arena with them and they are fascinated about learning how to work with psychology and body language in order to communicate with the horse in a language that the horse truly understands. I believe that the greatest personal empowerment found from being with horses is in learning how “horse sense”, and the process of bonding with horses, can relate to and benefit our own human condition.
When it comes to the personal challenges involved in communicating with horses, even when working with truly competent coaches, people will still struggle with a myriad of personal issues that rise to the surface during the experience. However, with a focus of evolving beyond merely using the horse as a metaphorical therapeutic tool and instead recognizing that horses are complicated sentient beings whose respect, focus, trust and willingness can and should be earned by the consistent integrity of our actions, instead of assuming and/or demanding compliance by virtue of being “the dominant species”, then the client has stepped into a learning experience that requires developing and maintaining an admirable list of essential life skills.
I believe that the best lessons learned from horses are those that involve our realizing that we need to adapt our predator basis of human behavior to be more balanced and cooperative with the nature of the prey animal in the horse. If we trainers, coaches and therapists can facilitate people in learning how to become “better horses” then we are assisting them in developing and balancing essential life skills such as awareness with focus, patience with decisiveness, sensitivity with assertiveness, and boundaries with receptivity, all while building upon a foundation of consistency, clarity, compassion, calm, confidence, and an ability to multi-task.
I do not think we need to use horses to help spoon feed people their personal development. I believe that one of the greatest lessons to be learned from horses is that all healers must first heal themselves. If EAP therapists, counselors, coaches and trainers can first become well grounded in horse sense and horse handling skills that never victimize the horse then and only then are we demonstrating and mentoring the actions needed to truly earn respect and trust from both horses and people. The beauty in “being the better horse” is that horses want to see the same qualities of character in their leaders that we want to see in ourselves. It’s simple: Being the better horse can develop the balance to becoming a better person.