The Downside & Challenges of Equine-Assisted Therapy

zara-lunaIf you are an Equine-Assisted therapist, teacher or educator, or thinking of working in this field, then you are NOT going to want to miss this enlightening teleseminar with the very experienced head of the Healing With Horse Collective (2500 equine-assisted therapists worldwide). Likewise, if you’ve been an equine therapy client, or workshop participant – this call will likely open your eyes and perhaps address some concerns.

I talk with Diedre West about top concerns – from both inside and outside this industry – regarding horse welfare; psychological as well as physical issues.

Diedre shares many ‘insider’ stories from her decades-long work in numerous settings, with clients ranging from war veterans to international corporate CEOs. You can click the PLAY button to listen to it here, or right-click on the Download link to save it to your computer or device. Enjoy!

Listen To Your Horse
Listen To Your Horse
The Downside & Challenges of Equine-Assisted Therapy


We had a lot of comments on the call from people concerned about the welfare of the horse, so in addition to what we discussed on the call, Diedre offers this advice:

“Often, the beginning of a deeper relationship with horse is when you ask what the worry, or concern, or problem is about, what the wall is that one is putting up, rather than assuming the horse needs your protection. Protecting others is a coping strategy, it is not a solution. Further, it is only when we do NOT ask for more information and assume it’s only about the horse, that horses will sometimes take the problem on themselves and manifest illness in a misguided attempt to help, or simply because they cannot help but take it in (as dependents such as human children cannot help but be affected by the unheeded energies of their caretakers).”

Here are some of the points discussed and questions answered during the call:

  • The use of round pens; both open and closed gate
  • Species-appropriate horsekeeping (forage/grazing, herds, pastures not paddocks) – can we not ask MORE from those who are acknowledging horses as sentient beings?
  • The psychological toll Equine-Assisted therapy has on horses and how to prevent burnout and help support horse facilitators.
  • If the horse is a sentient being and active in a therapist role, then shouldn’t the horse be able to choose at all times whether to work, or not? What place do ropes, halters, closed pens and client expectations have in a supposedly consensual therapy setting?
  • What are the standards or code of ethics around the treatment of therapy horses and who is enforcing them?
  • How can we monetize the services of a living being without dominance, or can we?

I think Diedre and I managed to cover most of the current dialogue about concerns for the welfare of therapy horses during this call. But if you have other points to raise, or stories to share – please post them below!

The Downside & Challenges of Equine-Assisted Therapy

28 thoughts on “The Downside & Challenges of Equine-Assisted Therapy

  • November 20, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    Yummy! That was a rich conversation. Thank you for sharing it. I feel called to share some of what came up while I listened:

    Diedre says, “Nothing (that comes up in a session) is ever a mistake.” I whole-heartedly agree. The mental agility necessary to trust the flow of a session and oneself is essential. It may take some time to grok it, but the information is there or will soon show up. Trust builds in a component of patience that’s critical to apply to any healing action.

    I liked that Diedre wasn’t over-reactive to potential stress on the horses. She demonstrated that she’s responded effectively when it was necessary, even though it was, at least temporarily, tough. In the situation described, her responsiveness was to dangerous behavior on the part of therapists. As a therapist, I’m saddened, but not surprised.

    Life has stress. In my opinion, this has benefits. It teaches and shapes us. It gives us opportunities to develop our strengths and empower ourselves in new ways. The same applies to horses. I think mind-deadening boredom is far more difficult for most horses to metabolize than an occasional stressor that the horse has to resolve. It’s resolution increases the horses’ skills and confidence. They really are empowered, once they run off the left-over adrenaline metabolites. When we look for the empowerment, we can intervene in a timely manner, if it doesn’t show up.

    I also heartily agree with Jini about the difference between a horse that really is overburdened by the work and one who just needs a little more or different support to process the stuff that’s coming up. Healing has a magical quality to it. Clients appear with the issues that are up for their healers all the time! When horses are integral to the healing team, their issues are likely to show up too. That’s good if the healer-humans know how to help the horse deal with it. Healing humans who are able to stay mindful to process will be likely to feel their way through this if they’ve established healthy relationships with the horses.

    “Unintentional condescension” I love this phrase, Diedre. This is something that all of us humans could work on. The more we pay attention to our unintentional condescension, the greater freedom we achieve. Every scrap of ourselves that we’re able to wrest from our conditioned Dominion Delusion will make us more resilient, healthier and more effective.

    Playing with instead of working on: Yes, yes, yes! We need to be loose, agile and attentive, like a cat, not pedantic and rule bound.

    Danger of misinterpreting horses’ unhappiness as related to the client, when it’s actually related to the horse-keeping strategies of the facility: I had an interesting experience of that last year when I went for an afternoon of EAL in a small group setting. The facility fed while we were still working in an arena. The horses who were with us were pissed off! The human facilitators appeared to have misinterpreted the horses’ behavior, which could have caused issues for the client who received their clearly faulty interpretation. This sort of thing is why I think it’s critical to have somebody in the session who knows both the horses and people. Therapists who are innocent with regard to horse physiology, psychology and sociology benefit from support until they’ve gotten comfortable energetically with the horses they’re working with and the dynamics of the facility where they’re working at. If they don’t have horse experience and want to work in the field, in my opinion, they need the willingness to dig in and learn.

    Burnout for equine and human therapists: first, accurately diagnose it: This is a critical issue to address. Life makes it a little easier by making our symptoms similar. It’s physiologically stressful for anybody to share energy with anyone else who is out of balance. Some have built-in flee signals when that sort of energy comes near them. Others are called to heal it. Some feel an overwhelming need to control it. Non of these approaches is right or wrong. They each may become necessary in different situations. Someone needs to be there who can differentiate between these situations and take appropriate action as necessary.

    First, we must each take care of our embodied selves. Those called to heal will. Those called to distance will do that. Our job is to trust this, after we make sure the design of the space gives the horses sufficient room to take care of themselves. As we learn to trust the process, more and more is revealed faster and faster.

    Horses, people, dogs and cats all get irritable on their way to burn out. It’s often the first symptom, so it becomes critical to attend to grumpiness. Sometimes, it’s just that. When we pay close attention, it’s usually pretty easy to differentiate temporary annoyance from a sign that something deeper has gone amiss. There are ALWAYS more signals when it’s a cry for help to alleviate a stress level that’s been allowed to build. I like to spend more time with any critter who seems to be having issues. The source inevitably emerges when I take the time to both ask and listen for the answer. Often, the horse just needs some sessions in which s/he is being re-empowered by being acutely listened to. Like us, horses thrive on that. And like human therapists, horse therapists need their own help to keep ahead of the work stress they metabolize while in service. Those with well-developed empathy experience stress when we connect with stressed souls. We can use the stress productively or we can get run over by it. So can our horses. To the extent that we humans learn to manage our stressors productively, we can support our horses to do likewise.

    Might the stress you see in your horses be, at least in part, a reflection of your own stuff? That’s an important query for most human-horse interactions. Heck, it’s important to any interaction. When we’re mindfully attentive to the response, we get answers.

    “Listening to your horse AND fully understanding what it’s saying… Try something long enough to give it a shot. Then try something different, if the first thing doesn’t work. Let your horses open you up.” Beautifully put, Diedre.

    Licensure doesn’t necessarily imply competence! I second that! Sometimes, licensure is just an indication that the person has sanctioned his or her Dominion Delusion through the state. That being said, there are some thoroughly awesome therapists out there. Most of us develop specific competencies and try to stay in our own lanes. Life often has other ideas. This certainly applies to non-therapists working in the educational side of the field too.

    Everybody has psychological stuff. Horses, cats, dogs and humans all have issues specific to their species and those relevant to their own journey. Often behavior doesn’t come clearly labeled. We have to figure it out or trust the answer to emerge.

    As facilitators, we never know what’s going to come up. As I see it, our job is to be limber enough to deal with it, whatever it is. We need to be confident enough to go with the flow long enough to figure out what it’s telling us before we jump in and try to direct it. At the same time, we need to know the particular horses and their setting well enough to know how they use their bodies to communicate. Like humans, there are individual variants in style between individuals.

    The quality of paying attention to the flow of the moment AND trusting it, even when we don’t yet understand it, is paramount in any healing work, in my opinion. To do that we need to be able to trust ourselves first. We need enough horse experience to be able to comprehend what they’re telling us. I often don’t know what’s happening in a session until later. That’s okay. It’s not my job to figure it out; it’s my job to support the client to figure it out while giving the horse the space and support appropriate to the energy they’re taking on. I can’t do that from an authoritarian position. I need to be in the flow of the moment to have access to the relevant variables being played out.

    At the same time, it’s critical to keep an eye out for potential trouble brewing in the energetics of all involved: the horses, client(s), co-worker(s), other critters, including humans on the grounds… Sometimes, it just takes time to assess what we’re seeing. That’s okay, if we can trust the horses, people, ourselves and the setting to hold the healing space. Angst arises in doing this work when we try to micro-manage it. I think, this is because getting over the illusion that we’re in control is one of the things we’re treating. We educators and therapists are just as prone to our cultural delusion of dominance as anyone else. It behooves us all to develop practices to tend to it.

    “That takes experience.” I second that, Diedre! I would love to explore what the field offers those who want in, in the way of supervision and support. One thing I have noticed in my professional field is that rules don’t work anywhere near as well as consciousness raising and relationship building in training healers. I hear a lot of that from you too, Diedre. Yippee!

    “Horses are willing to heal even when there’s stress involved.” I couldn’t agree more with this aspect of your piece. You also said that horses are empowered by being respected. Yes!!! Just like us, horses really get off on it. And, like us, they need time to figure out what to do with these old skills that have laid dormant in their bodies and minds until we reawaken them. I often think of horses as Sleeping Beauties who are awaiting the kisses of our mindfulness to awaken them. Conversely, I’ve thought of many of my clients as Sleeping Beauties waiting for the kiss of a horse to awaken them.

    You two did an amazingly great job at embodying that in this class. Thank you!

    • November 26, 2016 at 12:02 pm

      Hello Pat!
      What an amazing response this is! I am so impressed with the depth of your knowledge about facilitation, and with teaming with horses, as well as your knowledge about therapy. And I should add, your skill at articulation.

      You spoke so well about:
      1. Stress, and how it isn’t always something to navigate around, avoid, or see as a sign we are off track, but that sometimes stress itself is the path, and it builds emotional muscles so that we can be more resilient in the face of adversity.
      2. Overwhelm, and how that needs to be recognized, addressed, and supported in our horses as in ourselves.
      3. As facilitators, we are asked to be present, truly open to what comes no matter what is culturally acceptable, in a creative curious space, and flexible—as well as able to self-forgive and move quickly to focus again when we suddenly catch ourselves off track—what you call, simply and perhaps more accurately, confidence!

      I love both the deep wisdom and engagement in your message.

      I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a career in a number of my passions; as a college English and Humanities professor, a writer, a mythologist, environmental educator, and an equine professional, I’ve found each vocational journey to have enough richness for many lifetimes. But this work with horses is the most amazing combining of all my passions and skill sets and allows me to uncover layer upon layer of ways in which my ability to be a conduit for love, healing, and thriving can be cleared and opened. While facilitation is not about me, I do get to witness the most creative and remarkable healing processes. I get to see horses empowered to change lives. No one who meets the horses I work with would call them drained; in fact, it’s a common occurrence to have people stop their cars on the street next to my pasture when they see me there, get out, and ask me about these horses. They say, “I see horses out in pastures all the time. But these are different. I can’t take my eyes off them. What is it that makes them different?” I get to be witness to all this, and to learn about human nature and myself through the process.

      So even if readers have concerns, I hope they will consider that there may be something unusual going on, and not conclude that this work in which horses teamed with humans to help our species heal and learn and grow is a misuse of horses or in some way abusive.

      It is truly the work that requires the most emotional strength and heroism, the most variety of skills, and is the most enriching work I’ve ever done. That’s saying a lot!

      Thank you for your articulation that made me appreciate all that is asked of we facilitators, and your showcasing of all we have to learn and practice. It’s a life in a state of grace. I hope for as good a life for each of the remarkable, thoughtful, and caring readers of this blog.

      • November 26, 2016 at 4:31 pm

        Beautiful response Diedre – and I too get that comment about my herd all the time. I think it is the hallmark of an enlivened, empowered, respected horse and it is unmistakable. Even people who know nothing about horses can see/feel the difference. It would be so cool for Pat to meet your herd! If that ever happens you must take pictures and share the experience with all of us here!

    • November 26, 2016 at 4:59 pm

      Pat, out of all the awesome things you wrote, this is my favorite:

      “I often don’t know what’s happening in a session until later. That’s okay. It’s not my job to figure it out; it’s my job to support the client to figure it out while giving the horse the space and support appropriate to the energy they’re taking on. I can’t do that from an authoritarian position. I need to be in the flow of the moment to have access to the relevant variables being played out.”

      Wouldn’t it be cool if you and Diedre offered a training/certification program using your unique ever-evolving methodology. Or an advanced training for people who already have their certification. As Diedre says in her comment below – it’s okay that there’s no set methodoology – and why not teach that?!! Perhaps a collaboration between you two is on the horizon… I for one, would LOVE to experience the space held by both of you with your amazing skillset/toolkit grown and gathered over the years. 🙂

      • November 26, 2016 at 8:37 pm

        We could explore that. I am developing a training with Jo Byrnes and Saan Ecker of Peakgrove Solutions in Australia, as I have had a methodology that is unique in the field–not the only thing I use, but is unique–and involves blending the work that crystalized when working with a herd and layers of space, and has been subsequently deepened by my training in Constellations work. That training gave me the language that allows for articulation of what I’m seeing and making decisions about as a facilitator.

        I, too, love what Pat says about how it’s not her job to figure out what is happening, but to provide a space for it to happen for that person. As a person who studies and lives by story, I have never assumed I know what someone else needs or how something will resolve. The human is far more creative, expansive, and mysterious for me to be able to predict. What I can do is see a narrative track someone is on and validate the pressures and pulls it puts on a life, as well as where that track is likely to head.

        That framework, and validation of what someone is experiencing, are the roles I think are very valuable for a facilitator. But ultimately my goal is to become a white bird in the snow…so invisible as a facilitating agent that I myself disappear, if not in reality, then in the participant’s awareness and in what feels sacred about their experience.

        One other important role I feel a facilitator has is to hold space for a person to navigate the belief systems that get thrown in the air. This work can change a person’s life, but it may also require incredible courage for a person to see, and act on what they see. It can challenge belief systems about what is possible to know and heal, and how to access spirituality, what a horse is, what the whole world is, and what it sees and asks of us. We are much less alone than we think, and that is both comforting and intimidating when you really start to feel into the extent of it.

        • November 26, 2016 at 9:06 pm

          Oh so beautiful Diedre – you gals are killing me! All of you! Every time someone writes something here I’m flooded with gratitude for your fabulousness. Your last 2 paragraphs here are just… just great 🙂

        • November 26, 2016 at 10:13 pm

          One other important role I feel a facilitator has is to hold space for a person to navigate the belief systems that get thrown in the air. This work can change a person’s life, but it may also require incredible courage for a person to see, and act on what they see. It can challenge belief systems about what is possible to know and heal, and how to access spirituality, what a horse is, what the whole world is, and what it sees and asks of us. We are much less alone than we think, and that is both comforting and intimidating when you really start to feel into the extent of it.

          I really like this piece of your response, Diedre. Heck, I blushed purple when I read your and Jini’s response, I was so thrilled. Thank you both.

          Now back to the above quote. I agree wholeheartedly and recognize that this is territory I need to always remember to be vigilant about. I’m passionate about my beliefs. Often this is inappropriate in a session. I’m not out to brainwash anyone. My goal is simply to enliven people to their own truths. We humans share lots of deep truths, but their manifestations can take on an infinite variety. Because of our neuro-plasticity, our human truths are a moving target. I see it as my job to keep my clients focused on the emergence of their truths. Facebook is where I spew mine, when the need erupts.

          I would love to explore doing work with you, Diedre! First, we should probably arrange a face-to-face getting-to-know-you dance. I haven’t touched a horse since December 11, 2015 at 5:15 PM! Over the past year, I’ve been recovering from a health drama. I’m making great progress. May need a month or two to be ready for travel and horse work. I’m working on more fully re-engaging my nervous system by writing. Speaking of which, I just finished the article I promised you. Now, I just need to find the link you sent me. I need to do more work on my executive functioning too, apparently!

          BTW, I haven’t gotten any kind of certification in critter therapy, except through Ariana Strozzi’s SkyHorse Ranch training a few years ago, but I’ve been doing it throughout my 36-year career. First with dogs and later, with horses. I spent most of my childhood in the company of horses, dogs and cats in barns, pastures, show rings, cross country courses… When I got that humans and horses became nuttier the better they did in performance specialties, I became a psychotherapist.

          I needed to take one of my dogs to the vet one workday when I was a wee intern. She did such a great job with a very disturbed client in the waiting area that I invited her into the session. Wow! She and every other dog, cat and horse I’ve invited into sessions have been so much better than me alone at diagnosis and treatment planning, that it would feel like malpractice to work without them. They also help prevent me from developing the all-to-common psychotherapeutic malady of hubris.

          • November 28, 2016 at 6:47 pm

            Ha ha! Good that our animals are there to relieve us of that! I will send the links again, Pat. I’m so eager to get the article; thank you!

            And having a few months to plan sounds good. I think I already mentioned this to you, but you could consider attending the Healing with Horse Symposium April 28-30 in Sonoita. Jini and I will be there, and many others of your human herd!

      • November 28, 2016 at 7:36 pm

        YES! I would love to attend the gathering in AZ. Will start working on lining up critter care. That’s always a process. I’m starving for community after a couple of years of health-related solitary confinement. You women are my sort of humans. Whoopi, there’s light shining. I can see the end of this tunnel, finally.

        • November 28, 2016 at 9:07 pm

          That will be AWESOME Pat!! We’ll all get to meet in person! And the Apache Springs Ranch is just gorgeous. It will be a fabulous time for sure – YAY!!

    • July 12, 2023 at 11:57 pm

      For those interested in exploring somatic equine therapy further, I recommend checking out
      Equine Guidance. You can find more information on their website. Thank you.

  • November 20, 2016 at 11:04 pm

    I used to volunteer for an equine therapy program for at-risk youth and learned a lot. I also witnessed many of the topics and concerns you discussed with Diedre. As I learned more about how to read horses I realized my calling was rehabbing senior horses retiring from therapy work. I couldn’t change the therapy program, but I could create my own sanctuary.

    The horses I take in are seniors and have physical needs typically beyond the scope of therapy programs. Unfortunately, they are also emotionally shut-down. Sometimes it isn’t until a few years into their retirement and rehab that I begin to see the light come back into their eyes. It is then that I understand just how shut-down they were. It’s difficult to recognize a shut-down horse if the only horses you are around are shut-down. It’s what Temple Grandin calls, “Bad becoming normal.” She even acknowledged that she was a victim of that, and only when she was exposed to another reality, did she realize she too missed the cues.

    I’ve always wondered if there was a way to do therapy work where it is life-giving for the human and equally life-giving for the horse. I’ve seen the life-giving for the human and drain-on-the-horse model, and those are the senior horses I take in when they eventually burn-out.

    If I were a horse doing therapy work, I would want to be in Diedre’s herd. I hope that more programs follow her lead in how to listen to horses when working with people, and perhaps there would be less burn-out.

    Thank you, Jini, for discussing these issues. If it’s appropriate to mention it here, my website for my horse work is, and at the bottom of the home page is a link to a radio interview I recently did. Thank you, again, for the awareness you bring to the welfare of horses.

    • November 23, 2016 at 5:07 pm

      Mary, I’m curious about what sorts of healing work the burned out horses you help did.

      • November 25, 2016 at 3:44 pm

        Pat, They primarily worked with at-risk youth with emotional issues from drug and alcohol recovery to suicide and everything in between. Working with clients was both mounted and on the ground, usually in an arena. These horses did amazing work for about 8 years each. They probably could have gone longer if the management style was more conducive to their innate horse needs. They lived in small paddocks, had average hay, and lacked an exercise program. By the time they reached their mid-20s they started to lose condition, had more aches and pains and eventually started a pattern of biting when they had never bitten before. In addition, the lack of consistency in handling (there were many volunteers and clients coming and going) and their “no” not always being honored also contributed to their burn-out.

        When I took them in, I revamped the entire diet, put them out on acreage 24/7 in a herd and let them be a horse.

        Horses are so great at hiding their stress, especially the docile ones that internalize it. By the time we humans notice a problem it’s usually already been brewing for a while. I once asked horse ethologist, Mary Ann Simonds about stress in therapy horses and she asked, have you ever seen unexplained lameness, or gastro-intestinal issues, or difficulty maintaining weight? All of those issues can be stress-related. As she asked each of those questions, I could answer each one with a yes with a particular horse in mind that I knew from the therapy program.

        Today, the horses I rehab don’t do any therapy work. However, on occasion they do initiate of their own accord. If someone comes to visit, we may go into the field, and then walk in the opposite direction of where the horses are. We find a place far away from them and then just observe for the next few hours. Whatever happens next is determined by the horses and it’s different every time. I just can’t get enough of seeing what they will do if left to their own devices. It is way more fascinating than anything I could come up with myself.

        • November 26, 2016 at 5:03 pm

          This is fabulous Mary, just great:

          “We find a place far away from them and then just observe for the next few hours. Whatever happens next is determined by the horses and it’s different every time. I just can’t get enough of seeing what they will do if left to their own devices. It is way more fascinating than anything I could come up with myself.”

          Again, it’s the “no set methodology” method! Whether for training or therapy, it’s just fascinating, stimulating and endlessly enlightening.

    • November 26, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Thank you, Mary, for your enthusiasm for the way EAP/L can be done that does not lead to burn-out for the horses. I’m glad you’d want to me a horse in my herd!

      I too worked at a residential facility. I was a full time employee and the director of equine services. We did not have volunteers on the property for many reasons including confidentiality and protection both of the young women who were residents, and of any volunteers. It is a best practice standard that while physical rehabilitation programs like many PATH riding programs utilize volunteers, mental health programs do not.

      When I came to the program, there wasn’t a single horse there who wasn’t displaying signs of stress…and they were not subtle. I had to really back things up and do a lot of training, as well as re-teaching the students about how to be in relationship with their horses. The horses had all been rescues, so they may have already had some struggles with the humans in their lives, but the program had done them no favors.

      Telling the story of how this came around to be an incredibly empowering place for both horses and students is a book in itself (and it’s being written…chapter 3 is in process) and is where much of my experience for finding the way to find the good in the bad occurred. But what I will say is that my job required a high level of skill and knowledge horse training and rehab, riding instruction, experiential learning, and psychology as well as many other skills that come with running a program within a larger program.

      Horses who would rear and attack people when I began became reliable mounts that we could take on competitive trail rides and that I could put anyone on from beginner to advanced rider—and I had both types. I had women who had never been around animals to a couple of Olympic long-list riders. All loved it; all were appropriately challenged but not overwhelmed. And we never missed a riding lesson, we just did things differently. So even from the first lessons I took over, I had horses working through things and girls seeing how similar they were to their horses, and how unproductive it was to keep doing the things that had gotten them to the point where they were.

      Much of what helped those horses was their knowledge, from day one and building from that day on, that I would listen to them, they no longer had to yell or scream their needs to their humans, I always had their back and I knew that they had mine, they had consistency in their care—and yes, they had pasturage and a herd setting (as they had before I arrived, and they were integral, even over time central, to the healing and well-being of the young women who came through. One thing I did when working on their riding training was build in resilience and what it takes, not to be a mount who listens but to be a hero horse who leads. They got it, fast.

      I agree there can be problems, lots of them. I just don’t have a lot of experience other than what I’ve done myself. So I know it can be done; and the program I worked in was ranked top in the nation. When experts began coming out to see why, they determined it had to do with how the horse program was being run. But I was doing nothing brilliant. Just following my own guidelines, and knowing how to listen and find creative solutions.

      Thank you for your care, and I hope we all can find different ways so that horses are not sapped, as they are in many of their relationships with humans, but can experience the best in whatever discipline they and their caretakers are engaged in together.

      • November 26, 2016 at 10:41 pm

        Diedre, thank you for your comments. I would love to read your book when it’s finished, and I know of many others who would be interested in reading about the transformation of the residential facility into a life-giving model for horses and humans. The environment I was in was not only stressful to the horses, but equally stressful to many of us volunteers who heard the horses but had no power to do anything about it. Many of us left to find our own way with horses elsewhere. Reading about how you transformed the facility would be inspirational and healing, and very helpful to me in my work rehabbing senior horses. I can’t wait.

  • November 23, 2016 at 11:06 am

    Thank you Jini and Diedre for a very rich conversation and many, many insights that continue to ruminate for me.

    I also really like what Pat added above as her reflection on stress, burnout and our quality of listening and going with the flow. I also find Diedre’s idea of “Unintentional condescension” really powerful. I’ve been living and working with a herd for a year and a half and this has been a huge lesson for me from them … thankfully they are very patient with my learning curve and reiterating the message over and over haha!

    There are a few ideas I’d like to add to the conversation:

    1. Watching the way the herd works together.

    At first I assumed that if a horse stepped forward, that horse was doing the work with the person. What I’ve come to see with my herd, and I suspect it’s true for more I just don’t have the experience yet, is that everything comes from the herd. I”ve seen this in how they formed and became a ‘team’, in how they did a lot of initial healing, processed the death of one herd member, how they welcomed new members, how they adjusted to changes in the land, the weather, how they help another herd member deal with traumatic memories that were surfaced, etc. And in particular, how they work with people. I’ve found that having a set up where the herd can always see and interact is so important. My round pen is attached to their field and even when one of the horses asks to go in it with a client, I watch the herd and they still seem to be working together even though one horse has stepped up to be more obviously active with the client. I typically get as much information from the horse directly with the client – whether they are in the round pen or in the field – as I do from the herd. We humans are so conditioned to focus on our individual actions, intentions, talents, etc. and it’s easy to transfer this to the horses … to focus on the one who steps forward. I really get a sense that for horses, the herd is always primary and their uniqueness comes out of that and is only possible through the herd energy/intelligence/dynamics/consciousness (naming what ‘that’ is is a challenge!).
    I would also add that I have colleagues doing this work with their one horse on a small scale where they have their horse living at someone else’s facility with other horses who are not doing EAL/EFL and so the herd dynamics are different. I’m not meaning to comment negatively on those situations, or physical set ups where people use separate indoor arenas etc. I’m just sharing what I feel I’m learning with my herd 🙂

    2. Horses and humans growing together

    Perhaps this is something that builds on the idea of going beyond “Unintentional condescension” – it seems like something that was touched on at several points in the conversation. I’ve experienced this with my herd – a desire to continuously become more, to grow and develop. At first I saw a big leap for each horse that I think was related to what Diedre mentions .. the experience for the horse of being listened to, of having a voice and having choice. Their growth showed up differently for each one. And now I see the horses, each in their own unique ways, wanting to go so much further than healing and having a voice. They seem to ask to explore new ideas, to take on more complexity. It’s very subtle and most times doesn’t look like anything at all to an observer. But over time the shifts and growth is quite remarkable as is their hunger for more. I heard Linda Kohanov share an idea this past summer (my interpretation, not her exact words), “who is domesticating who and for what purpose?”. It’s a great question I think! One of my herd recently shared with another animal communicator that horses chose to take on the role of helping humans spread out geographically, for the sake of all our development and that they knew the pain this would bring them but they took it on for the whole. Of course I have no idea if this is actually true, however, if we can not only let go of our conditioned thinking that we domesticated horses and we must care for them, that we know what they ‘need’ and consider that perhaps we are on a developmental quest with them for no other reason than the joy of the quest, what more might be possible?

    thanks again Jini and Diedre for such an enlivening conversation and exploration .. who knows where we are all going 🙂

    • November 23, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      Tina, I like what you say about horses wanting to go further than just healing. In rehabbing senior horses retired from therapy work, I noticed that a first step with these particular horses who had burned out was just listening to their “no”. I kept listening and honoring their no, and eventually they started to say yes. I honored their yes’s. I thought that was it. Mission accomplished. But what I then discovered as I continued to listen was that they had ideas of their own, and initiation with me and other people of their own volition.

      Healthy horses are curious about humans, and want to interact and initiate out of their own curiosity. In my experience, the healthier they are on all levels (physically, mentally and emotionally), the more their innate curiosity comes out. The more we listen, the more they share and lead us down paths we didn’t even know were there.

      • November 25, 2016 at 4:07 pm

        Mary, I agree completely about horses (and all critter) are hugely responsive to respect. We all blossom in that light. It wakes up our connection receptor sites, or that’s how I think of it.

        I’m still REALLY curious about what type of therapy work the horses you’re working with did. Your description of their burnout is SO different than what I have seen, so far. I worked with horses for folks who had variety of PTSD. That injury can create a bunch of complications in our bodies, minds and spirits. I have always been careful to give my critter co-therapists choice and the space to make it during sessions.

        • November 25, 2016 at 10:06 pm

          Pat, Scroll up to see my response to your question about the type of therapy work the horses I have did. The burn out I saw had more to do with management and not honoring a horse’s “no” than it had to do with the actual therapy work itself. It was the program’s need to meet the client’s needs so much that the people didn’t recognize or misinterpreted the horse’s cues.

          With your horses, it sounds like you must be managing them well to have such a different experience. That’s wonderful! Can you tell me how old they are, and how many years they’ve been doing therapy work, and how you manage them to keep them happy, engaged and curious?

    • November 26, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Tina, I agree with you 100% that if the herd has access to the clients, then the whole herd does the work. That is why I was guided to learn about Constellation Therapy (beyond systems work), and where I am now…blending that learning with what I’d already seen possible with horses. And having more than one horse working with a client can be the case for horses anywhere on a property. And I would suggest that once a facilitator starts seeing this, they will begin to see that the birds, other animal life, and even the breezes and fauna can provide information. It becomes about what pops in your attention when you are in that zone, in that gestalt-space.

      And to return to horses, a visit to any equine facility invites me to open my eyes to subtleties that hint at how much horses, and indeed all of the natural world, is always working on humans. But certainly, I agree with you that when humans come in to a herd setting for a healing/learning intention, the herd, not just one horse, will work/play with them.

      I also love your second astute point that the horses will seek, or urge, guide, or just be part of a desire to explore new ideas, new ways of playing with energy to reach the heart of something that needs to be healed or released or moved into flow. That is another reason this work is so fascinating and rewarding; we and our herd are ever learning concepts and truths that deepen and greatly alter what we know is possible, what we understand about spirituality, death, life, physical reality, psychology, sociology, mythology…. I’ve admired those who can get a methodology together to teach; but I’ve chosen not to because the learning has not slowed down enough for me to feel I can create a methodology. As a former professor who specialized in curriculum development, that’s saying something. The 16 years I’ve been involved in this field have been a physical and metaphysical journey of a lifetime.

      It’s so cool to see someone else experiencing this, and articulating a truth that matches my experience so closely. Thank you for this lovely comment!

    • November 26, 2016 at 5:15 pm

      In light of where I’m at in my personal journey, Tina, this part really ‘dinged’ for me:

      “If we can not only let go of our conditioned thinking that we domesticated horses and we must care for them, that we know what they ‘need’ and consider that perhaps we are on a developmental quest with them for no other reason than the joy of the quest, what more might be possible?”

      This is so… enlivening and yet at the same time so guilt-relieving for me. I’ve been very hung up on the commission that I must provide as ‘natural’ a life as I can for my herd, so that they can be the truest expression of themselves.

      But really, there are so many more elements that come into play in this equation (a whole blog post’s worth actually!) and thank you for pointing the laser in this direction/expansion. Namaste.

  • April 22, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    Wow–what a wonderful, thought-provoking conversation. Thank you ladies for sharing so many insights and ideas to ponder for us who want to share the magic of horses with others in a way that is gentle and effective for all.

  • June 23, 2023 at 3:16 pm

    Excellent material that promotes a deep understanding and respect for horses, and to take into account their needs and emotional well-being as part of working with them. I enjoyed it, thank you!


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