Writing about the ethical inclusion of horses in therapy and social justice has felt a little like the time I jumped off a bridge. Or at least the agonizing wait before the bungee employees pushed me off. “Is what I’m doing ethical?” The question opens the door to an essential dialogue about social justice, power, and control. It’s a dialogue that we don’t readily engage in, in part because we are afraid of what we’ll find.
In my work, I’ve noticed that when we include horses in therapy sessions, we can and do unintentionally recreate oppressive power dynamics. The values we espouse of choice, consent, partnership, and connection in our horse-human relationships inadvertently work to preserve our power if we ask our clients to engage in practices with horses that don’t actually support these values.
I started riding when I was six years old. I loved how I felt around horses. I felt free in new ways, but, even from a young age, I learned that acts of domination and violence in my relationship with horses were expected and considered “healthy” hallmarks of leadership. Horses were often smacked in the face for perceived infractions. If a horse bucked or reared under saddle, they were made to run in circles until they were too tired to fight any more. Perception of them as stubborn, manipulative or lazy - especially the subtle misogyny projected onto mares as “crazy” or “bitchy” - reinforced the legitimacy of the power and violence we used when horses refused to “behave.” I have a lot of sadness and compassion for that little girl. These expectations and narratives came from our own lives and cultural expectations. They came from our own experiences oppressing and being oppressed. We all lost something in this process- we lost pieces of ourselves.
As bell hooks says, “there can be no love without justice and the heart of justice is truth-telling; seeing the world as it is, not as we want it to be.” For many of us, including myself, our ideologies concerning horses have shifted over the years as society has changed. I see good, kind people doing this work, people who love their horses deeply and want to support their clients’ healing. Many of us have shifted from using blatant violence and control to a softer, more indirect approach. This more “natural” way of engaging with horses feels kinder and yet the incongruence in our language and action is still there. This incongruence is a key ingredient in the maintenance of oppressive systems. Systems that tell women it was their fault and tell men they are entitled to hurt; systems that tell black and brown people they don’t belong and tell white people there’s a need to be afraid; systems that tell queer people that they’re not worthy of love and straight people that they are “normal.” These are the very systems we seek to help our clients heal from. These are the system that we need to heal from.
Our incongruence in our interactions with horses in treatment rests at the tips of our fingers that grip swinging lead ropes and whips as we talk about choice and consent. It sits as confusion in our gut as we close the round pen gate as our horse calls out for its herd. It gets performed as our power to name our reality as the reality. It gets swallowed as the questions we are afraid to ask. In the end, both the “old school” and “natural” approaches to engaging with horses are marked by power and control. Although the methods have changed, the thoughts and core beliefs that support those methods have not. Namely, that we are right and justified in what we do and the horse will need to meet us in the place of our answer.
In almost every horse-related discipline; natural horsemanship, equine-assisted psychotherapy, reining, or dressage, we communicate with and motivate horses by introducing an aversive and then taking it away. “Pressure and release,” makes up the majority of how we communicate with and train horses. Leg pressure, whip, spurs, and a swinging lead rope are all examples of aversives and can include anything the horse finds uncomfortable and wants to find a release from. This is how I was, as a young girl taught to communicate with horses. But when I started to include horses in the therapy work I was doing, values of choice and consent became glaringly important. We want clients to develop healing relationships. How can that be done in the context of controlling another? This is where the incongruence has been loudest for me.
If we are the cause of what the horse wants to find relief or escape from and simultaneously describe our relationships with them or our client’s relationships with them as “healing” “partnerships” “marked by choice,” I feel in my bones that I have stepped into the very murky territory of misalignment in my values and actions.
Restraint combined with the application of aversives is the very definition control, and yet it is used routinely in equine-assisted therapy. If a horse is confined or restrained in a round pen with a person who is applying aversives, the horse cannot exercise her own choice - which may include following the natural urge to escape. Instead, she is attuned to whatever pressure is being applied and trying to guess what will alleviate it. I don’t think that horses can ethically be called partners if they are restrained, confined, forced to do something or if escape is prevented. They can’t consent regardless so can they be called partners at all? Again we are faced the contradictions of our own power as we continue to define reality.
There will always be a power-over dynamic in our relationship with horses simply given the nature of domestication. That is a conversation for another time. With the acknowledgment of that power, we recognize the choice we can safely offer. We also recognize our ethical responsibility to care for, communicate with and motivate our horses using the least intrusive, minimally aversive strategies (LIMA). According to the Hierarchy of Humane and Effective Practice, negative reinforcement and positive punishment (the majority of the way we communicate with and train horses) are at the very bottom of the list. That doesn’t mean we don’t use it, it means we exhaust our other options first and if we use it, we do so humanely. We don’t remove the power-over structure, but we do increase choice and the emotional and physical wellbeing of our animals. When we don't, we end up attempting to support healing by replicating the same incongruence in language and power that’s central in maintaining oppressive systems.
When I discuss force-free methods of engaging with horses, emotional reactions are almost inevitable. People defend the morality of the methods currently being practiced with predictable routes of resistance; force-free methods, especially those involving food rewards are “inauthentic,” “not real connection,” “anxiety-producing,” and “bribery.” I think sometimes we avoid asking the question not only because we fear what we might find but also, we fear the risk the alienation and policing from those in our community when we choose a way that bucks the status quo. Our power and privilege are so deeply ingrained in our interactions with horses.
I’m working with my own filly on building trust and at one point during my last visit, she pinned her ears at me while eating hay. Her message was clear. Move away! So much happened for me at that moment. It was very difficult to not just chase her off the hay, to not assume my power, to not claim my space. “I’m paying for that hay!” I didn’t do that because I know that the reactive part of me seeks safety in control. I took a deep breath and backed up, as an internal conflict duked it out inside of me. Later, I told my mentor what happened and she confirmed that the behavior I described has nothing to do with dominance and everything to do with food anxiety and resource guarding. Chasing her away would just have increased that anxiety and put a wrench in our trust-building.
We must slow down and sit with ourselves and our fear of losing control and power-over.
I understand why people are opposed to a new way of looking at our interactions with horses. A sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says “We create meaning in the service of our power” and we interpret our horse's needs and wants in the same way. And so, a new question arises: What do we need to unpack and heal within ourselves, so that we may open our perspective?
We all want to become more whole. To pick up and put back together the broken pieces of ourselves. To switch back on the deep connectedness to each other and all of life that we turn off to operate in a society that oppresses people and animals. There is a more ethical way to incorporate horses into treatment; it’s connected to letting go of domination and control which also seems essential to finding wholeness in ourselves. To do this we must be compassionate with ourselves so that we can be vulnerable about both our power and our wounds. In that way have a better chance of finding ourselves in a place of alignment
I don’t think that this is talked about much, so it probably makes it even more important to discuss. As a field, we are highly represented by white women along with a few white men who are often regarded as experts and leaders. Does this representation lend itself to incongruence?
I’m just going to sit here with that for a moment and take a breath.
We cannot escape our cultural context. As the culture of including horses in treatment unfolds, what’s the cost of the status quo? There are people of color, people who are queer, people who are gender-non-conforming, people who are indigenous, people who are neurodivergent, and people who are not able-bodied all doing this work too. Are the evolving norms of equine assisted psychotherapy truly reflective of our collective voices, experiences, and intersectionality?
For a long time, I struggled with my own intersecting identities and my relationship with power. I still do. It’s painful to stand face to face with the privilege afforded by my whiteness. It’s deeply difficult work to unpack the crossroads of whiteness, cisgender femaleness, and queerness that have shaped who I am. I don’t think I am alone when I say sometimes I’m afraid that through all this self-reflection I’ll uncover, that I am no longer “good.” There’s a fear that maybe the racism, sexism, and homophobia that I have learned, been exposed to, and internalized throughout my life have fundamentally made me unworthy of love and belonging.
This shame is the deepest embodiment of oppressive systems. Shame keeps us quiet and small and talks us out of loving ourselves. In turn, these feelings keep unjust systems in place. So we need to be brave and cozy up to our own complicity and collusion in the preservation of unjust systems. I think it is one of the truest acts of love.
The Snow White Fantasy inspires much of our desire to be in relationship with horses. You know the one - the story where a white woman enters a forest of enchanted animals that follow her around and stop by her house to help her clean just because they love her so much. This drives much of our cultural narrative around horses and our spoken and unspoken expectations of them. We want horses to follow us, we want to be chosen by them, we want them to help free us, we want them to serve us simply because they want to. We want our relationships with them to mean something. Maybe we want our horses to prove to us that despite it all we’re still good.
The reality is we do not need this from horses and neither do our clients. In fact, I think we will find that our healing comes from walking away from this fantasy. We become whole when we dedicate ourselves to being with each other and horses in a different way. Because how can true healing happen when it’s at the expense of another? When we recognize how our expectations, our beliefs, our language, and our perceptions are bound up with the systems we are part of, we do our healing work. The change we seek to support in our clients’ lives and the vulnerability we so deeply desire is found in the deep, hard, painful, growth that we’re called to do within ourselves. We start to do that work when we become willing to question the status quo and when we stop charging our horses with doing the work that can only be ours to do. Oh, and loving ourselves through the process.
With tenderness and care,
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