Please note that the opinions expressed below are mine and may or may not reflect the views of other practitioners or organizations.
There is a difference between equine facilitated or guided interactions and those where the horse is directed what to do. I prefer a “being with” method versus a “doing to” method. The first one works with horses as partners and sentient beings. The second uses horses as tools. Now of course there is a continuum of possibilities and the interactions that use horses as tools are not necessarily bad or inhumane, but I believe that working with horses as sentient beings is a more effective, powerful, mutually beneficial way of helping people. I believe it’s our ethical responsibility to do this work in a way that is not at the expense of the horses mentally or physically.
When I first started to work at the Adolescent Unit of Sierra Tucson Hospital in 1990 in the STIRRUP program for equine facilitated psychotherapy developed by Barbara Rector, I came with a traditional dressage and Pony Club background. I also leased my horse Crackers to Sierra Tucson. He was about 12 years old, a handsome mahogany bay I had bred, raised and trained. I had despaired of finding his niche. He hated arena work and dressage and was spooky on trails. He was raised on a 130-acre horse property in Patagonia, AZ and the surrounding property was part of a cattle ranch. Yet he was afraid of cows and spooked at barrel cactus. He didn’t sound like a promising candidate to be a therapy horse, but he ended up being a star known around the world for his ability to “read” people. He became my equine mentor in how to do EFL/EFP.
On a Friday afternoon a family that had been through treatment at Sierra Tucson chose a visit to the STIRRUP Barn for their final family week process. They chose Crackers to work with and we took him to the round pen where I demonstrated how to longe a horse. I know this can look easier than it can be when an experienced horse person demonstrates it, and Crackers very obediently went around the circle in both directions, walk, trot, canter. The father volunteered to go first while the mother, teenage daughter and teenage son watched from outside the round pen along with our barn manager and me.
I coached him how to hold the longe wand (we did not use the word whip because of the abuse history of some of our clients). The father was standing in the center of the pen and Crackers was standing on the perimeter of the round pen, turned in and staring at the man. The father cracked the whip and yelled at Crackers to trot. Instead, the horse flinched but didn’t move his feet. This surprised me because Crackers was always a high-energy horse and certainly understood what was being asked. He cracked the whip harder and demanded again; still no movement by Crackers. At that point I had a decision to make. I could interpret what was happening as a training problem and disobedience by the horse and go help the man force Crackers to move or I could take a different approach. The father was getting angry, yelling louder and louder as Crackers refused to move.
“Is this what he does at home, yelling louder and louder?” I asked. His family nodded yes. I asked the father if this tactic of yelling louder and louder worked with his family. All three shook their heads no.
He answered, “No, they ignore me.”
“What is the horse doing?” I asked.
“Ignoring Me,” he said sheepishly!
I asked the man if he had another way to ask Crackers to move. He had no ideas. I had him drop the longe wand onto the ground and suggested he invite Crackers to move. As soon as he did this and just held his arm out saying, “trot Crackers” the horse instantly trotted around the round pen much to the man’s surprise (and mine too!). In less than 15 minutes Crackers managed to demonstrate to this family how the father’s anger had affected his family and how a different approach could be much more effective and easily received.
If I had responded as a horse trainer and treated the situation as a disobedience by the horse a valuable lesson would have been lost to the family and to me as a facilitator. There is no way to train a horse to do things like this. Good therapy horses seem to know how to do guide this kind of session. Perhaps it’s their ability to “read” humans and intuitively know what the person needs to work on that day. Crackers was a master at this work and taught me and many others to trust the process and follow the horse’s lead. He had found his niche!