Equine Welfare

Professional Implications for Working with Horses as Sentient Beings

By Trish Broersma, member of the PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee

Ten years ago, I was introduced to working at liberty in a large area (not a round pen) with my horses for building a better relationship with them. I had no idea of the fascinating territory that I would soon enter. I was taking a break from full time work at a PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center and had a frisky, challenging mare that I’d recently purchased as an endurance horse. I had time available for such endeavors for the first time in years. Soon after that I acquired a two-year old gelding for a lesson horse. My 22-year-old retired horse made up my threesome. As I explored the remarkable benefits of liberty work for all of these horses, I began to seriously consider what it means to honor horses’ sentience (the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively, a concept central to the philosophy of animal rights because sentience is necessary for the ability to suffer, and thus is held to confer certain rights). I had been exploring this concept along with others as we developed the Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning Workshop. Being an advocate for the horse was a key concept that I was familiar with, but working with them as sentient beings took things to a new level.

A turning point came after 4 years when my mare was introduced to a breast cancer survivor, our first client in our new program. Immediately after Mystic’s muzzle touched her hand, she stepped forward and began nuzzling her solar plexus, gently and persistently. I had never seen such behavior and was on guard for biting, and also amazed that the client who was afraid of horses did not move away. After about 30 seconds I asked Mystic to back away, and the client told us that the horse had gone directly to the spot where her tumor was and that she had not moved because she experienced an overwhelming charge of blissful energy coming into her from the horse. This woman will tell you today that she was forever changed by that moment, and it sustained her through many months of her continued treatment. This interaction initiated the beginning of our coming to recognize how this formerly difficult horse offered extremely precise and uniquely healing interactions with everyone. Until then, I knew that I had an affectionate horse, but not one who could accomplish miracles of healing.

Since then I’ve become enthusiastic about the benefits that began to unfold for both clients and horses as I explore sentience. It was initially humbling after 50 years around horses to find a new way of being with them, but quickly became inspiring and completely engaging. It has been gratifying to increasingly find others who are working in similar directions in their own explorations of equine assisted activities and therapies. A new frontier is opening up for our work in therapeutic riding, supported by recent research validating animal sentience, and the pioneering explorations by those I’ve been privileged to meet.

Here are some of the benefits – my favorites, out of others - that I’ll be elaborating on at the PATH Intl. National Conference on Wednesday, November 8, at the Equine Welfare Workshop Day, sharing professional implications of working with horses as sentient beings. I present these in the hope that they will seed discussion among colleagues about these matters for the benefit of entering new frontiers in our professions where we can allow the horses to lead the way.

Some of the gifts for humans from horses’ sentience:

  • Encounters with a being of large heart: with scientific measurements validating the coherent, slower heart rhythm of the horse, people with PTSD can experience their own heart entraining with the horse’s heart. For the first time they can experience a sense of calm, joy and peace, and improved autonomic nervous system issues, like lower heart rate and improved breathing. A recent client who has owned many horses said in amazement; “I feel like she truly cares about me!”
  • Heightened sensing of our environment / energetics: by learning the language of the horse, we can learn to heighten our own senses and learn to make valuable interpretations of what we sense in our personal and professional lives.
  • Return to calm: modeling horse herd behavior which can instantly go to high alert and then quickly return to grazing, we can learn valuable stress management and resilience in our own energy modulation.
  • Herd dynamics: we can learn about the power of community and how to develop a sense of true belonging, vital to coping with today’s stressful lifestyles.
  • Congruence (truth-telling) vs. Incongruence: since horses pick up on our inconsistencies in what we present on the outside compared to what we feel inside, they help us commit to a lifelong path of personal development.
  • Archetypal companionship: since horses reside in our imagination in association with heroic tales, their beauty and power help us access our larger lives beckoning to us to step forward and claim them.

I’m increasingly living by the motto “If it’s not good for both the horses and the people, then it’s not good for either one.”

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