Moving Beyond Effectiveness

Moving Beyond Effectiveness

February 19, 2024


equine, therapy

Working with horses as a healing modality is appealing for many reasons. You get to be close to these magnificent animals and may even develop a relationship with them. But the promise of a relationship isn't the entire story. So, what leaves clients feeling so impacted? And is it always for the best? My experience has taught me that horses do not have to be happy or willing for people to feel connected to them, love them, or gain health benefits from working with them. We can and do feel inspired and changed from a one-sided relationship with horses. In the paragraphs below, I will discuss why I think programs incorporate horses the way they do and some ideas for doing this differently. I discuss the concept of effectiveness throughout and several actionable strategies to move beyond effectiveness when incorporating horses into human treatment.

The rush and high arousal

Our culture operates on all of us, and just because our clients may not have experiences with horses doesn't mean that they haven't been impacted by the smog we all breathe in. When I first started including horses in treatment with my clients, many of them wanted to ride. They wanted to gallop! They wanted to do the thing they saw on the horse whisperer. This didn't surprise me because, you know, media. However, I noticed something more. Many of my clients, children and adults, who had experienced early relational trauma often wanted to be with horses right from the start, especially if they felt scared or uncomfortable. Some would push past those feelings, take risks, and, by all accounts, appear "engaged." As I reflect on this now, I believe it was the rush of potentially being unsafe that felt familiar to my client's inner world. 

Control over the thing you fear

The embodied experience of controlling something you are scared of can feel really good. It can feel cathartic. It can also feel necessary. When I was first starting as a baby therapist, I put my clients in some profoundly problematic situations with horses. Truly embarrassing. I know this now, but I had to figure it out because this is still standard practice. For example, I taught clients to use aversives with a horse, and the horse couldn't escape a situation. This doesn't always have to include chasing a horse around a round pen (although it did). Aversives can be anything the horse doesn't like. Brushing and petting can be aversive if the horse doesn't like it.

The outcome for the client might be great because, all of a sudden, they have power. They feel empowered. They may have faced fear or finally stood up to some embodied memory of someone who hurt them in the past. We get to address nervous system arousal and regulation in real-time, and there tends to be a LOT of buy-in from the clients (probably because of this nervous system activation). 

Perpetrator & Victim cycles

I hope you can see where I am going here. My client now suddenly feels powerful because they imagine this 1000-pound animal will do what they want. Or my client is seeking and working towards control, but they can't quite get the horse to do what they want. Either way, I, the practitioner, have just created the perfect setup to replicate relational trauma; the roles are just switched. My client is now the perpetrator, and the horse is the victim. I can't think of a worse setup for trauma therapy. I wish I could scream it from every rooftop. If you are doing this in your practice, please stop. Sadly, it's so common in the equine-assisted field, I think the NASW and APA should ban it. 

People benefit from horses that do not want to do what they're doing, scared horses, horses in pain, lonely horses, and horses that simply want relief. Unfortunately, healthy, happy horses are not a requirement for good therapy or learning outcomes. This is an inconvenient truth about this field. We MUST rely on more than good outcomes and buy-in from clients. Effectiveness for people is not enough when including animals in human treatment.

Safer nervous systems can feel boring.

When I shifted to working in more protected contact and incorporating equine learning and behavior into my environmental setup with my horse, I tried it out with a client or two. My people seemed bored. What was happening? Well, the promise of any rush was gone. That, and any dream of galloping off into the sunset. If we are used to a high-arousal nervous system, that familiarity often feels the safest, even if it means the body constantly feels unsafe. When I centered the welfare and safety of the horse, we moved so slowly and prioritized safety for the horse and the client. As Bonnie Badenoch says, my client's "nervous systems didn't know the steps to this particular dance." That doesn't mean it's wrong. It just means it's unfamiliar.

This is true for so many of us horse lovers out there who end up incorporating horses into our work. For those of us who have been with horses since we were young, the things we did were often dangerous. Our experience with horses was physical. We were tired after a lesson or a ride. Was it healing in some way? Absolutely! But so is going to the gym or doing a challenging obstacle course. It may help to remember that this is where many of us in this field started with horses, but not what healing looks like if we want a two-way relationship. What can equine-assisted services realistically provide clients if we truly listen to our horses, and what needs should met by other offerings or experiences?

I want more than effectiveness. 

Moving beyond effectiveness

What if adding horses to any treatment plan or learning experience is the place where we are so slow and intentional at listening to the cues and needs of another that we can eventually use those skills to listen to ourselves? What if horses are the opportunity to honor the ways we weren't listened to in the past, taking care of that inner child and knowing we don't want to repeat that practice? What if adding horses means we practice seeing the inequities and injustices we borrow from our human world? To ethically include horses in human treatment, we must move beyond effectiveness. But how, you ask? Here are some ideas!

Don't use horses to address high nervous system arousal. Regulate in other ways.  

Horses are big and can be intimidating for clients. This is often used to address nervous system arousal and regulation in the moment. It can be very effective but puts our horses in really unfair situations. Additionally, there have been a few studies demonstrating that people's anxiety increases horses' anxiety. Still, very few (and well-done) studies demonstrate that horses help us down-regulate or that horses can downregulate themselves in the face of our anxiety (source). 

As data changes, we continue to know more, but right now, as it stands, our clients' dysregulation doesn't affect our horses positively. I encourage you to find other ways to work with high arousal levels in your clients. Moving far away from your herd, you might try balancing, jumping, walking in nature, riding a bike, tug of war, listening to music, and breathing exercises. There are many other ways to center the nervous system (especially high arousal states) without horses. A more regulated nervous system is an excellent precursor to building a relationship with the horses. Your horses will thank you if you take responsibility for helping your client regulate first.

Center the safety and well-being of the horse in your session. 

This may feel slow for some clients, but that's ok. Especially for our people who have experienced relationship trauma, protecting and advocating for the horses makes you a safer person to work with in the long run. To me, advocating for the safety and well-being of the horse means: 

  • Horses always have the choice to exit a session and know how to do that (some horses don't realize they can leave). 
  • Horses can see and feel safe knowing herd mates are nearby.
  • Horses have access to food and water.
  • You continue to educate your clients about horse body language, stress and calming signals, and distance-increasing signals.
  • You immediately interrupt the client's behavior if it upsets your horses and vice versa. 
  • You do not use aversive training techniques with your horses in sessions or teach clients to use these techniques. 

Prepare your horses for work with clients. 

I hear a common sentiment that horses are natural teachers and healers, so they don't need any preparation to work with clients. While the idea sounds nice, it does a disservice to the horses and ignores all the current research on the welfare of therapy animals. We know that animals need to be prepared for good welfare outcomes. Horses are not exempt from this.

What does prepared mean?

Having positive associations with the population you're working with. That means you practice having people come out, and only good things happen when they visit (extra hay, scratches, good interactions, enrichment toys, or they are completely ignored if that's what they want, etc.) 

Having a clear understanding of what will happen when your clients are around. What can they expect? 

I believe every interaction between your clients and horses should feel positive for your horse. If it's not, you stop the interaction. For some people, this feels hard because it seems inauthentic. I think that fear is rooted in the old idea that horses' healing power rests entirely on their real-time feedback. This is dated, folks. Horses are sensitive, and that is a gift, but historically, equine-assisted services have put horses in situations where they have no choice but to give increasingly louder and louder signals that they are uncomfortable, which has been used for approximately one billion metaphors and meaning-making with clients over the years. I can see the historical context here, but like with generational trauma, I'm setting that one down. With power comes great responsibility, and setting up your space and program so the experience is overwhelmingly positive for your horse is your responsibility.

If you would like or need behaviors from your horses during the session, like leading, haltering, and standing to be brushed, practice these beforehand, rewarding what you like with something that makes the horse happy to engage. Don't just assume your horse likes these things because he doesn't protest. He might not know that he has a choice. There is no room for aversive training methods in preparing therapy animals specifically for their role. Although this is a hot topic in the horse training world, we have enough data to know that skillfully applied reward-based training is essential for good welfare outcomes for therapy animals (Source). It is the practitioner's responsibility to learn how to apply this training safely and humanely. 


Understanding consent 

Consent is a complex idea to apply to domestic horses who have not consented to be on your farm or in your learning or therapy program. However, teaching horses behaviors and giving them a choice to do those behaviors is one way to adapt to this term. This is referred to as a start button. The horse is rewarded regardless of what they choose. 

"The trick here is that they have to actually have a choice, and there needs to be an established learning history so the horse knows what they are saying "yes" or "no" to…Horses can and DO understand choice. Horses, just like people, thrive on being able to control outcomes." (source

If the horse's learning history says that when people hold brushes in their hand, I get in touched with them, take time to teach a "yes" cue and a "no," cue and practice both before your sessions. All "no's" should be respected and rewarded. Start buttons are a potent example of giving an animal control and choice over what is done to them, which may be very helpful for clients who have experienced relational trauma. 

I hope this post gave you some food for thought and some ideas for moving beyond effectiveness when including horses in therapy and learning. As always, I'd love to hear from you. 

With tenderness and care,


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