How to choose equine therapy partner(s)

The topic of what horses should we use for a session has come up in my work recently, so I thought I would share some insights on how to choose your equine partners for sessions and in general how to decide if a horse if a good fit for equine assisted psychotherapy work.

First off, I’ve heard a lot of varying answers to the question of how do I choose a horse(s) for a session.  Often the answer is “any horse can be an EAP horse, they don’t even have to be sound since they aren’t being ridden.”  I’m about to debunk that myth.  I’ve also heard “they have to be really quiet.  The older the better.”  yep, we’ll address that one too.  lastly, “Any horse that does therapeutic riding can be an EAP horse, we use EAP sessions to give our horses a break from their riding lessons.”

Choosing, listening to, and maintaining the herd is the most important job an equine specialist performs.  How you go about doing this job will depend on many factors, including how many horses your facility can manage.  I think that many horses have the potential to be good equine therapists.  I also think, like with any other job a horse might have, some have a natural talent for the work and others can learn the job really well.  There are also some that are not suited to this type of work, don’t enjoy it, or need special care and consideration.

Lets look at the suitability of the horse for psychotherapy sessions through three lenses.  First, we’ll address physical soundness and safety.  Second, the emotional safety of your equine partner.  and Lastly, addressing the environment, and physical and emotional safety of the people involved in the session.

Physical Safety

Horses must be physically capable of doing any job we ask them to perform.  The soundness expected of an upper level dressage horse is going to differ greatly from that of a therapeutic riding horse or an equine assisted psychotherapy horse; yet, this remains an important issue to consider.  Horses being used in my sessions are mostly at liberty, meaning they typically have the ability to move freely around whatever space we are using.  In this work, we are asking people to go with the flow and become more flexible.  We have to bring this mindset to the table when choosing horses for sessions.  While a horse can have a chronic issue that may result in their being unable to be a competition horse, or in some cases a riding horse, the horse must be comfortable and not have restrictions placed on its level of exercise.  Often, our intended activity for the day may simply be to go out and spend time with the horse or horses.  For example:  We may assume that since the activity doesn’t involve much movement that we can test out Polly who has been on stall rest for three weeks healing some type of leg injury and is now receiving short hand walking and turn out.  Our nervous first time clients enter the ring and Polly takes off running.  We immediately start to worry about Polly re-injuring herself and our energy level rises.  Our clients sense this and they start to feel emotionally unsafe.  Their energy rises.  Polly runs more.  This scenario is a recipe for disaster.  Rule #1: your horse must be generally healthy and not on any physical restrictions,  no matter what activity is planned.  by setting up you sessions without physical restrictions you are setting up  an environment that allows you to trust the process.  This space is more emotionally safe for your staff, volunteers and clients.

Emotional Safety

Horses are keyed into human emotions on a deep level.  In turn, they are emotional creatures themselves.  I talked about human emotional safety in a past post.  Horses have emotional safety needs as well.  One of the keys here is you have to know your horses well.  You have to have spent some time around them and have some ideas of their typical behavior so that you can be aware of changes in that behavior.  Horses absorb the “stuff” that we and our clients bring into the ring.  Typically they release this stuff through physical activity–running, rolling, etc.  It is vital that we are observing our horses for signs of stress and giving them ample time to de-stress through turnout.  Sessions, while at liberty and possibly even in a pasture, are not turn-out time.  In general, horses that are well suited for EAP will take care of themselves emotionally whether it be in the middle of a session or during turn-out time.  It is  important to note signs of burnout in your EAP horse.   If your horse has lost the softness in their eye, has turned to nipping every chance they get, picks up habits such as weaving or cribbing, runs and snorts at the slightest thing consistently when they were previously calm and level headed, or balks at joining a session, they are telling you something.  Hopefully you are listening.  We can talk about managing burnout  in therapy horses in another post.  Some horses will have the above behaviors from day one when introduced to psychotherapy work.  They too are telling you something.  They might be the greatest riding pony in your center.  They don’t want to play psychotherapist.  You wouldn’t ask a horse that trips over cross rails to jump a four foot fence.  Don’t ask your best riding horse to be a psychotherapist when he’s clearly telling you its not his thing.  Conversely, don’t make assumptions that a horse will not be a good psychotherapy horse because they don’t like doing the sensory trail with your autistic students.  Some of the best therapists I’ve met have been horses that don’t quite fit anywhere else.  Use them in a session and they are suddenly in their element.  These horses are naturals for psychotherapy sessions, they don’t need any practice.  Other horses will learn the job over time.  They may seem slightly aloof at first, or act as if they are on turn-out, but they will come around after three or four sessions they will show similar natural comfort in a session.

Environment

Plan your location ahead.  If you have horses with sugar sensitivities and you are concerned about their eating grass don’t conduct your session in the lush pasture.  If the pasture is the only space available, make sure your horses are able to safely manage grass turnout.  Likewise, make sure your footing is safe for those unplanned moments.  If you are concerned about slick footing, move your session elsewhere.  When you set up your session ahead with the ability to trust the process and allow things to happen you will set up an environment for everyone involved to feel safe both physically and emotionally.