Five years ago, as many of us where working hard to develop the NAEFW (now EFW-CAN) certification requirements, I read the following letter written by Leif Hallberg. She sent it to a number of people with her concerns and recommendations regarding developing Equine Facilitated field in the US. Leif states many of the principles and beliefs common to the development of NAEFW. It was good support and inspiration for taking the ‘long journey’ of deep learning rather than a quick approach. For those of us involved with NAEFW, this letter was welcome support for our direction.
Deborah Marshall MA
Certified EFW-CAN Trainer
March 22, 2008 - My dearest friends and colleagues,
Since 1996 I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of better understanding the psychological implications of the horse-human relationship. For most of that quest I have remained silent – watching, listening, and learning. Finally, I feel ready to begin speaking out – sharing my feelings and thoughts. This email message is my first attempt.
I feel that there are two key areas that we must focus on in the upcoming ten years for this field to be considered a truly “viable” and ethical treatment or education/learning approach.
Regardless of how much we love horses, recognize their helpful/healing abilities, and see the impact that any equine facilitated or assisted approach has on clients/students, we must also see that horses are horses. And as the Equine Inherent Risk Law reminds us, equines are dangerous, unpredictable, and may cause serious bodily harm or death. This is not a joking matter. The manner in which we conduct our services determines how much “safer” we can make our programs. It is up to us as facilitators of equine experiences to ensure our clients/students safety TO THE BEST OF OUR ABILITY. This means (to me) that it is our responsibly to provide our clients/students with the information and skills needed to maintain their physical safety. Any challenge course program, adventure based program, or wilderness program REQUIRES that all students/clients undergo an intensive safety and equipment presentation and training prior to engaging in a high-risk activity. Participants are never subjected to an experience without first clearly understanding the risks and having appropriate training to decrease the risk factor. If humans come into partnership with horses and do not have adequate safety training, the risk for serious accidents increases.
Not only is it critical to provide every student/client with a general safety training and education that includes a basic overview of equine psychology, behavior, physiology and communication, but we must also evaluate how safe our activities are. If we are placing horses in situations/activities that increase their natural fight/flight/freeze response we are placing our clients in greater danger. When a horse goes into a fight/flight/freeze response their primary concern in for their own safety. In such a state horses will trample people, knock into them, kick, bite, or whatever it takes to get away – to get safe. They are not thinking relationally. They are not thinking about the good or wellbeing of their human partner. If we are inviting unknowing clients into an arena with loose horses and providing instructions to those clients that engages the horse’s flight/flight/freeze response, we are knowingly endangering our clients.
Is this a risk you are willing to take? I realize that the therapeutic benefits can be profound and that people, when experiencing a rush of adrenalin, may experience intense personal reflections and insight, but at what cost?
All of this has not yet even touched upon the ethical considerations of placing an equine into such a situation. Some may not be as concerned about this as others. For myself, I believe wholeheartedly that it is the relationship between the client/student and the horse that creates the success of the intervention. I consider my horses my employees and my partners. Therefore, as a respectful boss, I also believe that it is my ethical duty to provide them with an emotionally and physically safe work environment. I know my horses well enough to know that they do not like being chased. I also know that for the most part they are not living in a state of fight/flight/freeze. This reaction only occurs when they are threatened or scared. I do not feel that it is ethical to use a treatment or learning method that places any member of the treatment team (human, animal, nature, whatever) in such a state. Furthermore, when horses get into that fight/flight/freeze response not only are they unaware of the humans, they are more prone to physically hurt themselves or other horses. I don’t think that this is ethically appropriate either.
Basically, what I am asking is that everyone who is providing an equine facilitated or assisted service evaluate carefully their use of activities and their safety training protocol for clients/students and make SAFE decisions.
My desire is that our field would minimize the risk for physical harm to our clients and emotional stress for our horses by adapting activities to be safer for all involved. Law suits will increase the rate of our insurance and will decrease our viability as a treatment option. This field is in our hands. It is our choice whether or not we start speaking out about unsafe practices – or helping to educate those new to the field about the safety risks involved and guiding them in a healthful and responsible direction.
For those of us who are mental health professionals, we must consider the ethical requirements we are bound to. As mental health professionals we are required by law to keep our clients as physically and emotionally safe as possible. If you are working with clients that you obtained or who were referred to you, please consider this statement. If you are not a horse person, how can you guarantee that you are “keeping your client as physically and emotionally safe as possible”? You are entrusting your clients to a “horse specialist” to keep them safe. This may be a person who is AMAZING and who you trust with your life, but at the end of the day, it’s you who will get sued if the client gets injured. And the question will be asked, were you providing a service that you have been educated, trained, and supervised to provide? If you have only been through a three-day “certification” workshop, or attended other short-term trainings/workshops, are you truly “educated, trained, and supervised” in an equine facilitated/assisted method?
The practice of medicine, law, science, psychology and any other professional discipline requires years of extensive training, education, and experience. If we want equine facilitated or assisted services to take its place as a viable, ethical, and respected professional disciple, we must “bite the bullet” and get the additional training, education, and experience needed. Even those of us who are already mental health professionals, this concept remains the same. It’s just a like a doctor – we have our general information to be able to practice within the methods we have been trained, educated, and supervised to provide. But, if we want to become specialists, we have to do more training, education, and supervision to ensure that we are truly competent to provide the specialty. Just to become a credentialed “play therapist” a licensed and experienced mental health professional must obtain an additional 150 hours of education/training from an institute of higher learning, have completed 500 hours of supervised play therapy facilitation, and obtained 50 hours of play therapy supervision. This is to include PLAY into therapy – not a 1000-pound live animal who is considered by nearly every state in the country to be “dangerous, unpredictable, and who may cause bodily harm or death.”
I feel that in order to consider ourselves “competent” we must know as much about the field that we are working in as possible. To me this means understanding the field’s origins, knowing the “who’s who” of the field, having a comprehensive grasp of the various membership and training organizations that exist, and understanding all of the methods available to use. We should also have a deep understanding of the ethics that govern us as providers of this method.
It seems like we just need to take a deep breath and settle. If we keep growing without a deep understanding of what we are REALLY getting ourselves into as a field, I am afraid of the consequences. I am afraid that without slowing down and addressing these issues, we will find ourselves without a field. So, please help me by passing along the notion that we must become SAFE and COMPETENT facilitators of these experiences, and that to do so may take time, money, and additional training. There is no quick answer. We need to slow down and make sure we are doing it right. Be wary of any organizations that suggest that you can become “competent” within a short period of time. Suggest to those who contact you about “getting into the field” that they will need to dedicate serious time and maybe money before they can start providing an equine facilitated/assisted service.
Here are some guidelines and suggestions:
1. Get lots of horse experience and document it! 2. Review your ethics (… and your licensure/membership codes of ethics) 3. Enroll in college programs offering equine facilitated or assisted courses (courses, actual degree programs, professional trainings, whatever you can do) ….. 4. Go to workshops and pursue their advanced programming (not just their introductory programming) ….Find a supervisor with experience in equine facilitated work and log your equine specific supervision hours. 5. Understand all the methods available for professionals providing an equine facilitated/assisted service. 6. Know your membership organizations and what they each provide to the field ….. 7. Make sure that you are creating/using activities that are SAFE and appropriate for your clientele. There are MANY options in regards to your methods or approach to providing an equine facilitated/assisted service. Find out about all of them and become educated so that you can choose and pick based upon the needs of your client, not based upon your limitations.
I thank you so much for your time, and for listening to me voice my fears and desires.
Leif Hallberg is the author of Walking the Way of the Horse, Exploring the Nature of the Horse-Human Relationship, one of the first textbooks in the Equine Facilitated field. The above letter contains excerpts from the original letter.