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Who Benefits and How? Equine Welfare and Animal-Centered Activities

By Miyako Kinoshita, Chair, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee

As humans, we explore the world through our hands and express emotional connection through touch [1], [2], words and sharing of food [3]–[5], whereas emerging research shows that horses create bonds through proximity [6], time and mutual engagement rather than touch or pressure.´, Emily Kierson, PhD candidate Oklahoma University, August equine Welfare Tips

For me this quote puts into question a principle often cited in the equine facilitated mental health, that of the interactions between people and horses being “mutually beneficial”. In my opinion, this may be an outdated and rather misleading concept.  While equines can participate in programs with or without negative experience and/or benefit, equines are involved only because of human desires and decisions.  Humans work with equines as well as other animals because it is beneficial to us: we are in power and control. 

In my work with children with psychosocial challenges offering and facilitating nature-based programs, I have seen and experienced the positive outcomes of these interspecies interactions again and again.  Often an increase in confidence, empathy, compassion, respect, communication, emotional intelligence is observed in children. What of the horse and what about the horse? Equine behavior is different from ours and recognizing those needs can be complicated coming from the human world. What do horses actually gain through interactions with humans?   

I have met some equines who seem to enjoy physical touch and interaction.  I have also seen many who don’t really seem to enjoy it but learned to accept it.  This fact creates a little bit of a dilemma, what should come first, human satisfaction or the feelings of horses? Being not only just kind to equines, but really understanding and accepting them and their needs as horses, is critically important in the children’s journey of building a truly mutual relationship. For example, while petting, hugging, kissing horses, may be good ways to teach children how to express their affection to the horses, but it may be more stressful and unnatural to the horses than helpful?  Yes, they learn to tolerate it, but do they truly enjoy it?

An awareness of the contradictions and differences between what people and animal needs are important in our Green Chimneys approach to human-animal interaction, where we implement animal-centered program, in which children actively engage in activities to care for the animals, learn from and about their needs and do what is best for them.  Children are encouraged to think about others, putting themselves in the animal’s hooves, (so to speak), and gain insight into forming relationship, ensuring welfare, considering ethics and social justice.  

 At Green Chimneys, we also use a Positive Youth Development framework in Nature Based Programs and promote 5 + 1 Cs, Competence, Confidence, Caring and compassion, Connections, Character, + Contribution. When children engage in activities to care for the animals, from the beginning, we create animal focused goals quite different from more traditional human-centered activities such as riding, vaulting or growth and learning ground exercises.  

Children come to the barn to do something for the horses to make a difference.  Their mindset is “to help horses”.  The activity itself already frames compassion, empathy, and the desire to be a steward.  Children want to learn and gain knowledge on equine behavior, management, or health issues, in order to come up with ideas how to help them.  Some of the activities involve grooming, treating minor injuries, or taking a horse for a walk.  Other activities do not require horses to be directly involved but to just be themselves.  For example, children who come to the barn around lunch time engage in mixing feed and mashes for the horses.    Some prepare and feed the lunch hay.  Some fill out the water buckets that are half empty.  These activities, when intentionally and thoughtfully facilitated by a trained person, can create wonderful opportunities to build confidence, empathy and relationship skills while the horse at the same time is not being “used” in activities, but is allowed to just be themselves. This kind of activity then really could become mutually beneficial? 

Focusing and diverting attention from the child’s needs to those of the animal can be a major shift. The child who is at the center of all the psychological treatment we provide, of academic efforts is under pressure of “what is good for you”, “what you need”, and how “we help you”.  When focusing on the needs of a horse, for a short while, the child focuses on someone else in need, and plays the role of a caregiver.  This role reversal allows the child to feel confident and competent, feeling a lot better about himself and his ability to help others.  We see children relax, and enjoy the experience as if pressure on them lifted.  Often therapists say a child looks and acts freely while engaging in caring for the animals.  

Another benefit is that equine behavior, language, and communication become very critical for children to learn when horses and their welfare is at the center.  It is not about “what can a horse do for me”, but “what can I do for a horse”, and “how can I understand them better”.  Children become so in-tuned with equine behavior and subtle cues.  We have children observe equine behavior in a herd, and discuss what happens when a group dynamic changes, how they express themselves, and individuality of each horse. This then is translated to when children interact with horses in grooming.  Horses exhibit different behavior on cross-ties, and children accept different needs individual horse has.   Finally when they ride, they are aware of horse’s subtle cues such as ears as well as each horse’s personality and behavior.  This allows children to ride with most concern about horse’s comfort and well-being in mind.  When a horse is already tacked up and child just gets on the horse to ride, this whole connection and understanding of the horse as its own emotional being can be missed or underemphasized.  In a therapeutic program, the child should be a guide and trusted leader working with a horse, not a person in control or in charge to make horse do things on his back. The child controls his own body and movements to best help horses move comfortably.  The child learns to give clear and precise signals and cues to communicate with the horse.  To me, that is closer to being “mutually beneficial”, not because the horse benefits from being ridden but the horse benefits from the rider understanding its behavior, needs, and movements and become mindful. 

It is my hope that we seriously consider the notion of what is “mutually beneficial” in the human and equine relationship in EAA/T, that there are times when the benefit may be one-sided, sometimes we compromise and we have the chance to create situations that benefit the horse more. While we accept our power and impact on equine in domesticated setting, we can take ownership of the responsibility that comes with it, and put their needs and comfort in the center of the program to uphold the highest standards in equine welfare.  Equine welfare education and animal-centered program can offer opportunities for the humans to learn and foster positive characters while offering equines more comfortable and optimal environment.  

https://4-h.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/4-H-Study-of-Positive-Youth-Development-Full-Report.pdf

in this article, the words animals and equines are used interchangeably.  As I work with not only equines but other domesticated animals, the idea applies to all animals including equine.  

PATH International is a partner in The Right Horse Initiative, a collective of equine industry and welfare professionals and advocates working together to improve the lives of horses in transition and massively increase horse adoption in the United States. Connect with The Right Horse at the 2019 PATH Intl. Conference and Pre-Conference in Denver or at www.therighthorse.org.

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