Selecting a Great Program Horse
In this A little bit o’ Biz Wiz… I thought it would be fun to look at some best practices on selecting great program horses! I’ve mentioned before that even though we know equine-assisted learning can work (miracles) for most anyone, not everyone is interested in participating. Similarly, although any breed of horse, regardless of their background can do this kind of work with humans, it doesn’t mean they are ALL interested in participating in our programs.
A Little Bit O’ Biz Wiz…
WHAT MAKES A GREAT EAL, EFL, EAP HORSE?
There can be a very big difference between horses that do this work and those that don’t. A horse that is new to this work may need some time to adapt and feel safe enough to express the truth of a situation when they have experienced a life of consequences for doing so in the past.
Those of us that have been doing this work for any length of time know that horses involved in great equine-assisted learning programs are encouraged and taught to exist in a higher level of awareness than most other horses. Of course, ALL horses have the capacity to exist in a higher level of awareness, just as ALL humans do. But that doesn’t mean they are given the opportunity or encouragement to do so.
We are in relationship with them as partners whose opinions and feedback are encouraged. Where other ‘horse-people’ might label a horse's response to their incongruent actions as ‘mis-behaving’, we would recognize the horse’s response as ‘missed behavior’. A horse’s behavior is their way of telling us (or our clients) that either we are not congruent with our thoughts, feelings, and actions, or that we are not aware of what is happening in the environment, or that they are in pain or feel threatened in some way. And many other messages as well!
When the subtle changes in their behavior are ‘missed’ their message may get bigger or more persistent until we pay attention. Some would label the horse as ‘bad’ where we as practitioners understand the behavior is information.
When it comes to any endeavor with horses, my philosophy is that we offer them the choice to engage (or not) as often as possible. You cannot operate a lucrative, sustainable equine-assisted program with only 1 or 2 horses. If it’s a hobby or side gig, and you have 2 to 4 clients a week, that’s a nice way to start. Eventually, you will need access to a bigger, more diverse herd.
Access may be a combination of your own horses, boarder’s horses, or going to someone else’s facility entirely.
Partnering with New Horses
How to know if the horse is up to the job…
First I want to talk about rescue horses. There is a prevalent, romantic myth that rescue horses all make great therapy horses. True that many have and many will, but the fact is, the majority of these lovely creatures need their own therapy first! The most successful programs that incorporate rescue horses offer months of physical, emotional, and mental rehab to these horses before they ever explore the possibility of incorporating them into a facilitated learning session. Especially with victims of trauma and abuse. Horses can be emotionally triggered just like humans. And just because the horse has experienced a parallel injustice, doesn’t mean that horse is the ideal partner for the situation. We need to consider each horse as an individual.
In human terms, a human survivor of violent family abuse is not likely to turn around and begin counseling other survivors on their first day in therapy. After months and even years of healing, they may go on to be fantastic counselors for others. Some will go on to do other extraordinary things and have nothing to do with counseling others because they really don’t want to engage with those emotions anymore.
Be very thoughtful in selecting a rescue horse and the amount of time it may take to integrate this horse into your herd and your programs.
Therapeutic Riding Horses
Another group of horses that I admire and appreciate is therapeutic riding horses. God bless these amazing beings for the joy and physical transformation they bring to so many children and adults. Many therapeutic riding centers are beginning to incorporate EAL, EFL, and EAP into their program offerings. This can be wonderful with the right human leaders and program horses.
I’ve co-facilitated many successful programs at therapeutic riding centers. However, just because the horse is wonderful as a physical therapy horse, doesn’t mean they are up for the job of equine-assisted coach.
The good news/bad news aspect of these horses is that they are incredibly obedient. This is great for safety and handling (especially with large groups). The downside is that they have been trained to obey simple commands by most anyone and taught to hide their true response to the incongruency of their handler (client). This makes offering feedback to the client a bit more difficult when they accomplish the task at hand with little to no feedback from the horse. As a facilitator, you may recognize incongruencies with the client, but without any input from the horse, you would deflate the client’s sense of accomplishment.
I’ve worked with others that are very expressive and happy to share their opinion of the situation. Take the time to get to know them before scheduling them with clients!
Similar to therapeutic riding horses, lesson horses are often taught to be extremely obedient and suppress their true feelings. They will often do what most anyone asks them without any authentic feedback on their part. Their responses are mechanical, not in response to the client’s true state of being. I adopted a lesson horse who eventually became a great, expressive coach over time, and she taught me a great deal about how to read the subtle cues of her true feelings. The more I acknowledged her truth, (without her experiencing negative repercussions) the more expressive she became. She realized she had permission to say, “no”, when the client was incongruent, or to let me know she didn’t want to participate that day.
Things to Consider
Whether you are considering buying, leasing, or partnering with another facility think about some of the following as you make your decisions…
- What are the horses at any given stable currently expected to do and who are the people they are doing it with?
- How are the people? What is their state of awareness and presence?
- What kind of relationship does the horse (or horses) have with other horses?
- What is the horse’s history?
- What is the current level of stress for the horse?
- What is expected of the horse (or horses) selected to do this work? (once a week, multi-day events, daily)
- Does the horse (or horses) have other work to consider? (riding lessons, competition, weekend trips with their owner)
- What are the overall health and physical capabilities of the horse?
You may have other questions to consider that are unique to your situation and program. Take the time you need to get to know the horse(s) and have friends or family assist in mock sessions if possible. If considering a new horse to live with you for program work, ask for a trial to be sure the horse enjoys the work. I suggest 3 months as it takes time for them to integrate with you and your herd and what you are asking of them.
Take the time it takes to allow the horse to understand and appreciate what you are inviting them to do with you and you will develop a working partnership of love and mutual respect for life!
To Your Horse & Soul Success,
My mission is to empower and educate equine-inspired practitioners in the art of profitable program design and marketing. My dream-come-true is to see equine-assisted personal and professional development be recognized and celebrated for the unique transformational modality that it is, and to become as popular as yoga and Starbucks!