By Kate Naylor and Bettina Shultz-Jobe

“Equine therapy” is probably the most commonly used term to describe, well, just about any therapeutic service involving horses.  It is the most commonly searched term online, and we as practitioners use it all the time.

But, there is a problem.

It’s incorrect and it’s confusing.

Using the term “equine therapy” to label the work that we do in equine assisted services not only muddies our work, but complicates marketing and most importantly, leaves consumers confused and often seeking the wrong services for their needs.

This matters.  For the integrity of our field, for the wellbeing of our clients, and for the health of our businesses.

So what is “equine therapy”?

Equine therapy literally means therapy for equines. This can encompass many wonderful services such as equine massage, masterson method, chiropractic work, reiki, nutritional therapy…the list goes on and on. But importantly, it is a therapeutic intervention for the horse, not the human associated with the horse.

How many times have you explained the work you do to somebody who thought you did therapy for the horse? I’ve had people tell me that they were picturing an actual horse on a therapy couch. We often giggle and then I clarify, but the language we use in this field seems to contribute to this image.

Enter: Equine Assisted Services

The correct umbrella term for what we do is Equine Assisted Services. Making this distinction is valuable on multiple levels. You can learn a bit more about our terminology here.

I hate to muddy the waters here, but it’s worth mentioning. . . Some practitioners do, indeed, integrate equine therapy (therapy for the equine) into equine assisted services (services for the person). This is powerful work that Bettina touched on in a recent webinar. In NL we do believe that Equine Assisted Services should be good for the equine too, but our primary goals are specific to the person receiving services.  

Getting Clear on the Services We Offer

When we describe our services as “equine assisted”, it prompts us to understand what services our equines assist.  In a recent paper, leaders in our field argued for more clarity in terminology.  One suggestion was, when speaking or writing about our work, we should lead with the service and then add “…integrating equines”; as in “mental health counseling integrating equines”.  Or “psychotherapy in partnership with horses”, or “physical therapy using equine movement”, or “occupational therapy in equine environments”, etc.

While this is a mouthful, I admit, I often use this language when describing what it is I do for work. It just is more clear. And importantly, it leads with what it is I actually do. When I lead with this concept, not only is my potential client more clear on whether I can meet their needs, but I am more clear as well. I have to know my scope of practice, my skill set, in order to speak in this fashion. This is a matter of ethics and competence, as well as effectiveness.

We have a problem in our field of believing that just being with the horses is sufficient. While horses are incredible partners in healing work, I think we can all agree, it is necessary for the health and well being of the humans we serve that we develop ourselves professionally separate from the horses. Knowing the service that I offer, with or without equines, makes me a better practitioner.

Now, maybe saying “I offer mindfulness practices in partnership with horses” feels like too much of a mouthful – that’s where “equine assisted mindfulness” can come in.  Using this language instead of “equine therapy” is not only an important point of clarity for the work itself, but is incredibly impactful in your marketing and business building.

Incorrectly using “Equine Therapy” creates confusion

When I search “equine therapy” I get a bazillion results all touting a variety of equine related practices. It is confusing and overwhelming, to say the least. But if I am a consumer searching for mindfulness, and “equine assisted mindfulness” pops up as an option? Cool! Now that’s more like it.

Your business is more likely to be found by the right people, the people who want what you do.  This is a win-win created by more clarity and precision in your language. When you are clear on what you offer, separate from the equines, and use the correct terminology, you will reach the right audience, and the right audience will be able to find you.

Accurate terminology helps people find right-fit services

Lastly, and most importantly, when consumers have heard the term “equine therapy” used over and over, and then utilize that term to search for a practitioner for themselves or a loved one, they can be lost in a sea of services that do not fit them. Worse, consumers self-select an inappropriate service.

If a licensed mental health therapist specializing in trauma processing markets as an “equine therapy” practice, and so does the life coach down the road, and so does the yoga teacher around the corner, and so does the therapeutic riding center across town – how is a consumer, likely uninformed in all these different modalities, supposed to choose what is right for them?  

Each of these services is very, very different, and is designed to meet specific and unique goals.  And, if a client with undiagnosed PTSD (or another specific and sensitive issue) chooses a practitioner that is unqualified to recognize and treat that issue, significant harm can be done. That is the last thing we all want.

Clarity in language fuels our professional evolution, better marketing, and more safety and accuracy for our clients – better services for consumers is absolutely the goal. This clarity is a necessary detail that shouldn’t be overlooked.

For more conversation on this topic, check out Bettina’s recent webinar.