The Fundamental Flaw in Equine-Assisted Therapy & Learning

Chapter 19 of my first book, Riding On the Power of Others was named “Equine-Assisted Psychosis” for a reason. My publisher’s editor thought it was an error and assumed I meant “Psychotherapy” which led me to believe she either didn’t read the chapter, or she had some sort of close tie to horse therapy. I knew when I wrote the first book that I was barely scratching the surface of what was wrong. The continued excavation has given me a tremendous amount of consistency to rely on. Three years later, I’ve met a lot more therapists and a lot more horses used in therapy, and there are two things I’m sure of: 1) You can’t heal humans by exploiting animals; and 2) Domesticated horses can only offer a skewed reflection as a result of the trauma of their own oppression.

Animals used in therapy are dependents, not consenting adults, and these implications must be considered before looking at captive animals as “healers.” I’m not sure how permanent, positive results could possibly come from exploiting those in our care. You might feel better for a while after a session with a horse, but it has come at the expense of someone else’s freedom. As Thomas Jefferson said, “dependence begets servitude.” The consequences of taking advantage of dependency are long lasting and insidious, especially when done without awareness.

As stated in my first book, I do not believe that healing can occur at the expense of another being. Even if equine therapy helps people build self-awareness, overcome certain challenges, allow a fleeting connection, or develop life skills, it ultimately sets them up for failure because of the abuse of power involved with the horse. Further, by relying on the sensitivity of the horse, facilitators disconnect from their own ability to respond and recognize emotions with such presence and subtlety. Using horses in therapy is the same as using any other drug. It often makes us feel better by treating the symptoms, but it does not provide the cure.

The reason it feels so good to be around horses is because they, like every other animal out there, don’t judge. We feel seen and accepted in their presence, and they offer instant feedback and immediate forgiveness. Isn’t that the human therapist’s job? Unbeknownst to most equine facilitators, domesticated animals cannot even give the most honest or accurate feedback. Horses in a conditioned state can, in fact, and very often do, hide their truest emotions or react from their trauma. This isn’t well-known because there are few people around the world today who have actually stopped using domesticated animals long enough to experience what they are really capable of showing us.

After years of study, exploration, and travel, I’ve yet to meet a horse used for therapy or a learning program that was not in a deep state of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is “a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed“ (Google dictionary). Where horses persistently fail to succeed is in the area of being seen and heard. No one can hear you when their use of you is more important than your voice. Over time, horses resign to their situation as a lesser version of themselves in order to cope. Many are quite content and even seem happy to live this way, as they have no idea something more even exists. Horses don’t spend their days comparing the “now” to the “what could be.” The reason mustangs have a reputation of being more difficult to train is they have a broader perspective of what is available. They’re also usually much smarter than domesticated horses so they choose the path of least resistance just as easily when they know all hope is lost. Sadly, I’ve even seen some proud former wild stallions kill themselves over being willing to submit to human control.

One significant difference I’ve noticed repeatedly between a horse that has never known freedom and one that has is their depth of awareness. Most horses in captivity appear fairly stupid compared to a truly empowered horse that enjoys a wide range of choice over their lives. It doesn’t matter how kindly a horse is trained or what methods are used. Trained horses do not behave the same as those who are free to be themselves. No form of training – not praise, positive-reinforcement, or otherwise – can produce a horse that is completely free of the negative affects of being used. This creates a serious limitation in how much effective therapy is actually possible through horses. We can only offer to others what we have accomplished for ourselves. The horse, then, becomes more of a cop-out than an aide for facilitators, and that is how therapy/coaching/learning turns into exploitation.

A horse is not any more capable of offering a healing presence to others than a human. It just seems so because they don’t have the same kind of conditioning to overcome and they live more in their bodies than we do. Using them for this instead of learning from their embodied example is the very height of human arrogance. The only thing that makes a horse special for healing purposes is that they are the only animals we keep in widespread captivity that are still nearly 100% the same as their wild counterparts. We haven’t domesticated them long enough to condition the wild out of them. They embody something long forgotten by most humans and give us a glimpse of the connection we’ve lost. Biology, however, does not determine whether or not someone is domesticated.

Domestication has to do with an abuse of power and the resulting limitations it creates. It doesn’t take much for an animal to learn they have no power over their lives when we bring them into our care for our own purposes. We simply haven’t used horses for nearly as long as the other animals in our direct care so they’ve maintained far more sensitivity and ability to clearly reflect subtle energetic changes. A horse’s size has played a role in this as well as it is far easier for most people to control someone the size of a cat. Any animal, including human animals, can be restored to this wild sensitivity through rewilding. Rewilding happens by challenging our societal programming and restoring connection to our bodies and our most authentic self; a self that is free of another’s purpose or conditioning.

Many people have been inspired to change their lives after spending time with my undomesticated herd of horses, but last year I made the sanctuary private. It felt worse and worse to make the horses available to strangers, even with the strict guidelines I use for allowing interactions to happen. I became more of a mother and less of a horse owner, and that’s a good thing. The more I learn, the more I realize that to unconditionally love someone truly means to not use them.

My horses were so effective at giving people the experience I often spoke about, I was letting them do the work for me instead of embodying it more myself. Granted, every single penny those experiences brought in went back to them in the form of food, but those we forcibly place in our lives owe us nothing to keep them fed and well cared for.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no way to allow people to come here specifically to interact with the animals in exchange for something without exploiting them. If people want to benefit from what I’ve learned and accomplished with these animals, they get it through me or I teach them how to relate to their own animals in the same way. It took a long time for me to make the dependent/guardian dynamic connection. The animals in our care are no different than our children in terms of their ability to consent because of the grossly unequal balance of power between us. I wouldn’t pimp out my kids to make someone feel better, and I no longer find it appropriate to do the same with my animals. This makes using animals in therapy impossible for me, and it creates a tall order for the developing animal sanctuary movement to follow. We need to take the responsibility off the animals to heal our broken world and become an example of the very thing we seek to gain from being with them.

Take a moment to consider the amount of time that goes into learning how to masterfully train an animal to be used in any way. Now, think about the time it takes to develop complete programs, systems, protocol, and organizations around such use of animals. Finally, I want you to imagine what a different world we might live in if each person dedicating their lives to exploiting animals in an effort to help people would just put all of that incredible talent, energy, and focus into healing themselves and becoming an embodied example of the well-being people otherwise seek through therapy. Think about the technological advances and breakthroughs our species might have already achieved if so many of us weren’t so damn distracted by getting our needs met through animals. Think. Feel. Now shake off the chains of your own domestication. You were meant for so much more than this.

Ren Hurst is the author of Riding on the Power of Others: A Horsewoman’s Path to Unconditional Love and the upcoming ANIMAL KIN: Restoring Connection to Wild Wisdom. Her company, Render Me Wild, LLC, offers interspecies relationship coaching, consulting, and education through a body of work called Sanctuary13. Find out more at Patreon.com/rendermewild or RenderMeWild.com