Audio: What Are the Rights of a Working Animal?

Those Scandinavians – they always seem a step ahead on welfare… A Swedish labour union is seriously considering extending rights and services to working animals, particularly those in the therapeutic field. Animals have worked for the benefit of humans for as long as they have been domesticated, but in the past century our need for them as mere labourers has vastly decreased – but animal ownership is hardly on the decline. As pets and companions, our critter friends have had the chance to teach so many of us about themselves as beings – as intelligent, sentient, empathetic, emotional and spiritual individuals.

If you read this blog regularly, chances are you know of or work in Equine Facilitated (or Assisted) Therapy (or Learning). While this field has made huge strides to be acknowledged as a legitimate and extremely effective form of therapy for humans,  it’s beyond time we address the elephant in the room – that the more intelligence and sentience we acknowledge in our animal friends and workers, the more we must acknowledge their lack of choice and the possibility that we’re taking advantage of their incredible natures. We’ve had interesting conversations lately on this blog about the potential pitfalls and concerns that crop up when using horses in therapeutic settings, as well as ways to address or mitigate collateral damage to our equine partners. So far, it’s up to individual practitioners to ensure the best living and working conditions for their own horses, but I have often wondered if a regulatory system is needed as the industry grows.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear this conversation on my national radio station (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), on a widely-heard program that is known for its quality journalism. This is just a discussion for now, but I’m really happy to hear it addressed earnestly at this level.

You can listen to this program here:

…or check it out here on CBC’s website.

Highlights include:

  • The Swedish labour union explaining their reasons for addressing the rights of animals in the workplace, particularly in a therapy setting – down to issues like whether or not a therapy animal should have to endure being hugged if it is not mutually desired, consensual touch.
  • Kendra Coulter, Associate Professor of Labour Studies at Brock University, and author of Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity weighing in on what it would mean to bring these questions to Canada, and what working animals’ rights and services might look like here.
  • Conversation with Devon MacPherson, who has trained her own service dog, Barkley, to aid her with her clinical anxiety. She advocates for regulating the service dog field, and explains how she mitigates the stress the Barkley’s job creates for him.
  • Carriage Horse Welfare – A fourth guest outlines the conditions and regulations in her work as a horse-drawn-carriage driver. While she claims the horses are treated well enough already, Coulter challenges her assertions.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – do you think animal workers should be protected and their welfare regulated? How can you imagine this being implemented, particularly in the equine therapy field? Is there a way to regulate so that critters can thrive in their professions, not just have their needs met superficially? What problems or pitfalls with unionizing animals can you foresee? Or let us know anything else your wild minds think up on the subject…

Audio: What Are the Rights of a Working Animal?

6 thoughts on “Audio: What Are the Rights of a Working Animal?

  • January 7, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    Beautifully done, Kesia. I love how open-ended your questions are. That opens the space for a great conversation on this critical topic.

    I strongly believe that horses are apex healers for humans. This makes them vulnerable to the same issues that affect human healers. Burnout is the main one. Of course, keeping a horse stalled, alone and unable to move and forage leads to burnout and a host of other health and behavioral issues too.

    When I’m working with horses to heal humans, I want to do it where the horses are the most balanced, supple and relaxed. That’s usually in their pasture with their band. Their inter-band relationships are critical to their senses of comfort and safety. Also, a lone horse is going to feel some degree of tension when they’re out numbered by humans. I want everyone on my team balanced, supple and relaxed. So, with herd and pack critters, I work with their whole gang. It’s actually far easier to do the work this way for everybody, including the client.

    I also insist that clients and assistants practice Mindfulness at least enough to get into that state-of-mind at will BEFORE they encounter horses directly. This is invaluable both therapeutically and safety wise. Critters know how to work with us with extraordinary efficiency when we’re in a Mindfulness neurological pattern. It’s easier for everyone involved to find the healing zone when the humans are Mindful. It also gives us an extraordinarily efficient safety kit for emergency situations that sometimes pop up in healing.
    I also like to give the horses as much choice as possible about which horse is going to connect directly with which client. Like us, horses have individual preferences around the types of folks they’re drawn to. There are types of people I don’t want to work with. Why shouldn’t they have preferences or specialties too? They do, whether or not we care to recognize it.

    In my opinion, it is our sacred duty to find ways to provide horses, all horses, with a stable group of equine friends, room to move among their friends in territory where appropriate forage is available. This is no small feat for urban dwellers. It can be tough anywhere.

    Horses are well endowed with mirror neurons. That appears to be the, or one of the seats of empathy in mammals. Empathic people, cats, dogs and horses are all vulnerable to burnout. I don’t know if that’s related to the mirror neurons, but it sure looks like it is. Regardless of the cause, all healers must address the potential for burnout. Mitigation needs to be built into each session to prevent burnout for everybody involved, including our critter helpers.

    I have no clue how this could be regulated. My approach is to educate by example. This reduces my range though. Opening the discussion is critical. Thank you!

    I don’t think anything that happens in a session is random..

    • January 8, 2017 at 7:26 pm

      Pat, I love all your thoughts on this. Your attentiveness to the balance of your co-facilitators is key, though – what about people who haven’t developed that awareness, or work with someone else’s animals and/or with someone else’s facilities and/or rules…? Keeping in mind that every situation is different, as are the goals of the humans, I’m wondering about what basic rules might be helpful to all therapeutic animals – if it’s even possible to set out standards that way. I was appalled by seeing very lame horses being used for therapy work, until a friend reminded me that some horses are permanently lame and therapy work is their only option, and often something they really enjoy. Meanwhile, I know from first hand experience how hard it is to maintain ALL the bits and pieces in a non-conducive environment (boarding out, living in the city, limited money, etc), and how not everyone’s standards of wellness are the same, or even necessarily relevant!

      Maybe a resource could be developed over time with guidelines toward keeping happy, healthy therapeutic animals, there for anyone interested in improving their animals’ wellbeing. And perhaps a minimum standard could be developed that wasn’t too oppressive – because, once again, standardization and subtlety do not mix well!

  • January 8, 2017 at 5:25 pm

    I think getting people to first of all recognise horses (and all animals) as sentient beings is the first step.
    Education is the key – and part of that is having a situation where people can understand how horses live and that’s something that is best seen in real life.
    I have 3 herds on my farm, and everyone who comes to stay here as a ‘helper’ (they come from all over the world) observes that my horses are the most friendly, well adjusted, natural behaving horses they have ever seen.
    That’s because they have been in stable herds for their entire lives (aside from a couple of rescues) and always treated with respect and love.
    I always introduce my horses to new humans at liberty to give them choices, and people learn first of all how to please the horses with itching their favourite spots.
    From there, the relationship builds and its fascinating to see the wonderment on people’s faces as my horses choose to interact every day.
    If more opportunities like mine were available around the world, more people would learn what the real nature of the horse can be which influences their view of the horse as a friend, healer, companion and sentient being.

    • January 8, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      You’re completely right, Cynthia – as we all know, many of the world’s injustices to the human species have been done due to othering, lack of empathy, and disconnection. I often find that non-horsey people are quick to agree with my liberal attitude towards animals, while those that consider themselves “animal-people” are more likely to have giant blindspots regarding the sentience, physical needs, and intelligence of critters. I don’t think there is a shortcut to empathy – besides doing exactly what you’re doing, letting people interact with happy, healthy animals that WANT to interact.

      “If more opportunities like mine were available around the world, more people would learn what the real nature of the horse can be which influences their view of the horse as a friend, healer, companion and sentient being.”
      –Yes! And I think more and more opportunities are opening up, or certainly I’ve been made aware of a growing number of people offering this relationship-building… which gives me a lot of hope.

  • January 23, 2017 at 10:56 pm

    It’s great to hear this topic discussed on the radio and on your blog. 15 years ago when I was first introduced to equine therapy, I never heard this topic discussed. Only from my own experience volunteering in the equine therapy field while at the same time learning how to read a horse (in a training environment) did I then discover by accident what burn-out looked like in horses as the horses around me burned out. The better I got at reading horses, the finer the nuances of burn-out I picked up.

    I have heard more than one person in different completely different equine fields say, “We know the horse is in pain, but the horse is ok with it.” I think as we continue to learn how to take care of ourselves and see the benefits of what life can be like, we will in turn take care of our animals with the same expectation of not just an “ok” life with tolerating pain, but an awesome life where it feels great to be alive and thriving. Anything involving animals and people can be life-giving for both parties, but that will only happen if deep down we dare to believe it and have the courage to let go of control and allow the space for it to happen.

    Thank you for bringing up this topic.

    • February 2, 2017 at 11:16 am

      I’ve had the same thing, or worse: “Oh, he just LOOKS lame…but he’s not.” (?!?!?!?) – I think the complications arise when we try to clinically assess or enforce ideas of wellness, which as we know can be as varied (and off-base) as any other human opinion shoved through our lenses of ignorance, unawareness, conditioning, or our own “stuff”.

      But this: “as we continue to learn how to take care of ourselves and see the benefits of what life can be like, we will in turn take care of our animals with the same expectation of not just an “ok” life with tolerating pain, but an awesome life where it feels great to be alive and thriving” – I think you’re right. It’s an agonizingly slow evolution, but it is moving. So maybe we’ll see this issue crop up again and again in the public eye before working animals have not just an “ok” life but downright wicked-awesome lives, and maybe it’ll take decades, but the point is that we’re all adding to the movement by looking after ourselves and learning how to look after our critters. Thanks Mary!


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