In any relationship, if it’s not good for both, it’s not good for either.

November 26, 2011

If a relationship is not good for both, it’s not good for either

Tim and I just got back from the PATH Intl. (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, formerly NARHA) Conference and Annual Meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. Prof. Phil Tedeschi was the keynote speaker, and his thoughts have snuck into Tim’s and my conversation many times since. He is the clinical director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver. He coordinates the Graduate School of Social Work’s Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate program at the University of Denver and teaches forensic social work and experiential therapy approaches. A certified Master Therapeutic Riding Instructor and former course director/instructor with Outward Bound, he has many years of experience in non-traditional therapeutic approaches with children, adults, and families, as well as in interpersonal violence including animal abuse and sexually abusive youth and adults. An appointed member of the Colorado Sexual Offender Management Board, he also evaluates and treats sexual offenders. He is a founder and clinical administrator of Hand Up Homes for Youth Inc. and founder of Sexual Offense Resource Services.

Prof. Phil Tedeschi explained that research has suggested over and over again that if we want there to be therapeutic outcomes, it needs to be mutually beneficial to both parties.

In the “animal-assisted world” we are currently going to great efforts to “prove” that animals are strong medicine. Tedeschi has said, "Animals provide some of our most reliable, uncomplicated and valued relationships. Understanding the contribution animals make to our health and well-being is a vital part of educating tomorrow's social workers." The question Tedeschi proposed to the 800 people at the conference was the following: Are we prepared ethically when we finally prove the value of animals?

Over the years I have talked with hundreds of people about why they chose equine assisted therapy (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, etc.) as a profession. While the stories vary in the details, the gist is this: “I have always loved horses. (Usually, there is a story about a deep relationship with a horse, or about a desire to have one.) When I realized that I could combine my love of people with my love of horses, I knew I’d found my calling.” Most of us entered this field because of relationships - Relationships with people and relationships with horses. My horse’s name was Mr. Ed, and he was my first love. I truly believe the relationship with him made me who I am today, but you’ve heard the story before. . .

So. . . I continue to be confused by what many of us actually do with horses and people in this field. When I was a child Mr. Ed got as much out of our relationship as I did. In fact, the day he broke his leg and had to be put down, he walked across the pasture on only 3 legs, while I pleaded with him to let me come to him. Call it anthropomorphism, but I believe we comforted each other as I wept and we waited for the vet to arrive.

Tim has his own stories of the horses he’s loved. Everything we do in Natural Lifemanship is about relationships – relationships with horses and relationships with people. We believe that if it is not a good principle for building a relationship with a person then it is not a good principle for building a relationship with a horse. Likewise, we can learn principles through a relationship with a horse that serves to deepen and enrich our relationships with ourselves and others, or we can learn principles that when transferred to other relationships are damaging and at worst abusive.

Are we using our horses in ways that are beneficial to them, as well? Are animals sentient beings or are they objects or machines? What is the emotional toll of equine therapy on our horses? Human beings “burn out” when a job becomes tedious and they are not given some freedom and empowered to make decisions. Are animals any different? Humans “burn out” when they are repeatedly put in high-stress situations and continually take on the emotions of others. How do role-plays (which are often used in this field) affect an animal that isn’t capable of cognitively understanding or processing “make believe?” If we came into this field because of relationships, then how does it affect the work we do with animals and people when we believe that, in any relationship, if it’s not good for both of you it’s not good for either of you? When the “benefit” to the human is one-sided, what is the underlying principle that our clients are learning? Research has conclusively shown a link between violence against animals and violence against humans. The majority of this research has focused on physical violence. In the mental health field, we know that abuse is any form of power and control, and that physical abuse is only one of several types of abuse. Do we need to see research on the link between all types of abuse towards animals and all types of abuse towards humans before we take heed? Do we define abuse differently toward an animal than we do toward a human? Historically, we have. These are the things we need to think about if we are to be ethically prepared for where research in this field is (hopefully) leading us.