"It's not just about petting horses": Understanding Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Horse-Human Healing Relationships

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Takacs, Jill
equine-assisted psychotherapy , horse-human relationships , animal labour , professionalization , epistemology , spirituality , animal identity
This thesis critically analyses experiences of the horse-human relationship in equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP). As a therapeutic modality, EAP relies on the presence of a horse, a licensed psychotherapist, and a client. As the field is generally unregulated, each EAP session and practice is slightly different. Drawing on interview data conducted with 10 Ontario-based EAP clinicians, I offer two main arguments: First, I demonstrate that psychotherapists approach the horse-human relationship differently depending on how they understand the role of their horse in the EAP encounter. Clinicians often anthropomorphize, or assign human-like characteristics to their horses, as a way of respecting the work that they do in an EAP session. Other clinicians believed that EAP horses are ‘just horses,’ interacting with clients based on their evolutionary programming as prey animals. A select few psychotherapists blurred the species boundaries between horses and humans further, by likening their clients to their horses and effectively animalizing them in the process of comparison. I argue that this third approach has the most potential to help EAP clients, clinicians, and horses enter into respectful relationships that may allow for mutual flourishing. Second, I demonstrate the epistemological tensions at the heart of EAP practice. Because EAP may be considered a complementary or alternative medicine, clinicians often feel that they are not adequately recognized by the general public or by other healthcare professionals for the work they do and shared that they would like to see further professionalization of the field via training requirements and consistency in accreditation. While this alignment with biomedical legitimacy is welcomed by some, it may be incongruous with the holistic, client-centered, and sometimes spiritual components of EAP that sets it apart from traditional, biomedically recognized talk therapies. I argue that the spiritual element of EAP is at odds with the dominant Western scientific paradigm, which could be lost should EAP undergo professionalization and further standardization and regulation. I conclude by offering several areas for further exploration and reflect on the challenge of centering animals in critical research when they are not directly present in data collection.
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