Partnering With Equines Versus Other Common Therapy Animals
I believe that equines impart unique benefits in comparison to other common therapy animals such as dogs and cats. In my experience, being with equines tends to provoke a strong initial response by most clients. Many people across cultures have specific feelings and beliefs about horses. Throughout history, literature and art have portrayed romantic notions of horses’ power, strength, grace, and beauty. Many clients come to psychotherapy with preconceived thoughts and feelings associated with equines, regardless of their level of previous exposure. Some clients come to psychotherapy with feelings of fascination and awe towards equines. Other clients come with feelings of anxiety, fear, or intimidation as a result of negative past experiences with equines. Overall, most people have less exposure to equines than they do to dogs and cats, therefore making their interaction with equines more unique. For clients who have had equines in their lives, the equine becomes a source of comfort and safety to counteract the anxiety of beginning psychotherapy.
Other factors that differentiate the experience of working with equines from working with other common therapy animals include equines’ large size and mentality as a prey animal. The large size of the equines provides opportunities for clients to overcome fears and learn new ways to communicate in order to get the partnership of such a large animal. Even a miniature horse may weigh 200 pounds and outweigh most large dogs. For many clients, working with a large animal can enable them to feel a range of emotions, from safety and security to anxiety' and intimidation. Learning to work with such as a large animal can result in increased feelings of empowerment, assertiveness, accomplishment, confidence, and self-esteem (Chandler, 2017). Clients who may be used to communicating in maladaptive ways with others by using force or coercion may find these strategies ineffective when working with an equine.
Unlike dogs and cats, the equine has a prey animal mentality. Therefore, the equine possesses a very' different “operating system” or basic understanding of itself and the world around it than humans, dogs, and cats. Equines also have different motivations in their interactions with humans than predators such as dogs and cats do (Payne et al., 2016). The main priority to an equine is to feel safe and comfortable in its herd and environment overall. Therefore, many equines are slower to approach and build trust with a human due to fears about their own safety in the interaction. The equine is highly aware of and attuned to its surroundings at all times—including the people in its environment. In addition, equine arc astute readers of body language, as the majority' of their communication happens through body language. Not only do equines read the body language of other equines to understand them and communicate, equines continuously read human body' language as well. Therefore, working with equines requires people to not only be aware of themselves and own their body language, but also observant of the equine’s body language. Learning to read equine body language combined with learning to understand the equine prey animal mentality enables psychotherapy clients to work towards developing high levels of empathy and self-awareness. Additionally, as equines live in herds for increased safety, additional opportunities arc presented for clients to observe, experience, and process the social dynamics among the equines in the context of living in social group with others of the same species. Finally, unlike most predators who tend to be driven by rewards (e.g., food or attention), equines tend to be driven to engage in actions that remove pressure and/or discomfort (Hamilton, 2011).
Benefits for the Equine by Participating in Equine-Assisted Counseling and Psychotherapy
Participation in equine-assisted counseling and psychotherapy can also be good for the equines themselves and improve their overall quality of life. In fact, it is essential that programs are structured in such a way that the equines do benefit from participation (Hatch, 2007). Often the equines experience the session as enjoyable and communicate a desire to participate. Positive changes in the equines participating in equine-assisted counseling and psychotherapy have been reported at every facility where I have practiced. One program reported that horses who had previously refused to be haltered in the pasture and ran away in response to seeing the halter began to willingly stand and be haltered. A donkey at another facility, who had been badly neglected prior to being cared for by the current owners, used to run at the sight of people approaching. After a few months of participating in equine-assisted counseling and psychotherapy sessions, this donkey began to connect with specific clients and approached them during sessions. Less than a year later, the same donkey became the “pasture greeter” and approached most clients as soon as they entered the pasture. Finally, a therapeutic riding program reported noticing less stress behaviors in the horses during lessons after the horses began participating in equine-assisted counseling and psychotherapy when they were not in lessons. I believe that it is very likely that, like canines, equines experience positive physiological benefits from interacting with people (Odcndaal & Meintjes, 2003). Furthermore, the positive nurturing and low-pressure interactions that equines experience with many clients in session can repair the equines’ negative experiences with other people and in other working contexts. This idea is supported by findings from Lynch, Fregin, Mackie, and Monroe (1974) indicating that equines may demonstrate positive physiological responses while being pct by a person. These interactions enable the equine to have more freedom and autonomy to express themselves. The equines can build trusting relationships on their terms with people and have the freedom to express themselves in an environment where they will be heard and respected.