Five unfinished thoughts on animal-assisted therapy.
Animals’ Five Freedoms:
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
2. Freedom from Discomfort
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour
5. Freedom from Fear and Distress
—Farm Animal Welfare Council
Freedom # 1
“Horses are heart-centered beings,” Penelope tells me. “The horse is your co-pilot on your chosen journey.” Penelope is a life coach. This is my third equine-assisted therapy session with her. She has long, white blonde hair that parts down the center, like a horse’s mane.
My co-pilot today is Rose, a large young horse who is relatively new to the farm and terrifyingly unpredictable. For much of the session, we stand on the other side of Rose’s pen. Penelope likes to use somatic techniques: visualize energy moving from the ground. Bring it into your toes. Bring it into your heart. Rose spends most of her time staring out at the children riding other horses off of the farm grounds or backing up towards Penelope for butt scratches, her focus drawn to other things, as I stumble through the things I want to feel and say.
Before this, I had almost no experience with horses. I had taken exactly one horseback riding lesson in high school and had promptly given up. What I did know was that they seemed hard to read. I wasn’t sure how or where to look at such a large animal: their face? Ears? Tail? In fact, I knew nothing about horse body language. I had spent the past two sessions terrified that I would be kicked suddenly in the head, unable to interpret the horse warning signs.
I arrived at horses almost as a last resort. I disliked traditional talk therapy, and harboured a general distrust of counsellors. Besides, I already knew what my problems were, and talking through them was pointless. Maybe animals, not people, could help me.
What does being heart-centered mean? I’ve always been very mind-centered. People have called me cold and unfeeling more than a few times (a charge I disagree with). Maybe what heart-centeredness meant was a capacity for empathy, but I can’t say for sure. On horses as healing facilitators, Penelope writes:
I partner with horses because they communicate from a body-heart-mind connection, something I believe is a lost communication in this world. Being a “prey” animal requires them to be fully aware of their environment at all times, and able to read the body language and intention of another being from a great distance. The instant response feedback from their actions provides us information, making us “check in” with how we are showing up, bringing us to a state of self-awareness and present moment interactions, as this is how horses are. They just are.
This lost communication was something I desperately needed to learn. At a certain point, it seemed as if my mind decided to stop conversing with my body, or vice versa. Physical symptoms would spring up without cause, and my brain seemed to attack itself without provocation: the lymph nodes under my jaw would swell after going for a walk; I had to change my shirt several times a day from over-sweating; and, during a certain period in my health, I would wake up abruptly from my sleep believing there was an earthquake. (My earthquake tracker app would confirm that my body was running what I privately referred to as “fantasy earthquake drills” but could more accurately be described as “internal tremors.”) False alarm bells rang out through my unruly nervous system, alerting me daily to nonexistent infections or cruelly conjured threats. I could not trust the information my body was giving me. What I wanted more than anything was to get away from my body. I wanted to check out (not check in)—to disassociate. The more attention I paid to my body, the more anxious I would become. Body awareness spiralled violently into body anxiety. My brain burned hellishly as anxious thoughts overtook me. Over the years, I’ve tried acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, herbs, and other forms of body and energy work to bring my body back under my control. Animal assisted therapy was just another thing to try.
Before Rose, the horse I worked with had died. “Haven just didn’t want to be here anymore,” Penelope explained. Cause of death: despair. Haven was a young horse and the knowledge of her burning out and dying from her own sadness made me reassess animals emotionally labouring for complete strangers. Her death wasn’t just tragic—it was indicative of abuse. A sad little dirt ring was the only space the horses could work off steam. How could I possibly ask them to help me when they lived in such inadequate conditions? I wasn’t entitled to their emotions.
The session ends and I draw two cards from a unicorn oracle deck and three affirmation cards: Water. Best Friends. Trust. Vision. Self-Respect. (My friend Sasha says the cards in the unicorn deck are “exclusively optimistic.”) I feed apples and blackberry leaves to Rose and also to a charmingly small senior pony named Magic, who has extreme anxiety, probably because he’s trapped there forever.
Freedom # 2
As a child I read this book called The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Dogs, Dog Breeds, and Dog Care over and over. I liked learning about the different breeds: their personality traits, how to take care of their coats, what diets were the best, how to exercise them, and so on. We didn’t have a dog (my dad has allergies) but I wanted to get to know animals. At the time, I was a lonely kid with a not-so-distant speech problem that had made it difficult for me to communicate with other people. What I wanted was to be an animal person.
I devoted myself to other animal content. I watched Dogs with Jobs and Animal Miracles, Canadian television programs where dogs saved their elderly owners from house fires or heroically sniffed out breast cancer. I wanted a relationship like that—where an animal would care enough about me to save me. In reality, animals didn’t seem to like me all that much. My hamster would bite me. The neighbourhood cat often hissed and scratched me. I used to scoop fish out of the family tank and bring them to this cat to try and force a connection. (It didn’t work.) “The cat knew you were a desperate loser,” my boyfriend tells me.
I don’t think about animals like this anymore, about them saving me. Back then I didn’t understand that animals required steady relationship-building too. That is, animals aren’t interested in unearned connections.
In 2018, I made a documentary about a somewhat internet-famous service dog team. What I learned: disabled people were forming intense animal partnerships to survive because other systems had failed them. And this particular service dog team was incredible: the dog was immaculately owner-trained, and both were deeply bonded and committed to one another, but I learned this wasn’t always the case.
Few regulations are in place protecting or assessing service or assistance animals’ wellbeing. It’s a wild west of unregulated and unclear policies favouring handler rights over a growing industry of working animals. Dogs are overbred to produce litters of service dog prospects. Emotional support animals maul people’s faces off on planes. Support hamsters are flushed down toilets. A Google search for “service dog owner training” yields YouTube videos of stressed and panicky dogs doing public access work in Walmart. And scams abound, from fake service dog registries to questionably accredited service dog schools—fake or untrained service animals run fearfully amok in the hopes they’ll provide some sort of desired task for their handlers.
Most studies on animal assisted therapy look at how animals reduce stress in people. Very few studies ask about animal stress. In one study from 2007, researchers investigated canine stress during animal-assisted therapy sessions. Dogs’ mouths were swabbed by their handlers to measure cortisol levels before and after therapy work. The findings: dogs had higher levels of cortisol after therapy sessions. The researchers recommend further follow-up studies before making conclusions about canine stress.
A more recent paper from 2021 identifies emotionally intense situations as stressors in therapy dogs. (A stranger tightly holding you so you can’t get away while crying uncontrollably, or venting toxic anger, could be stressful? No kidding.) It suggests what stress signals to look for, from ear-pinning, looking away, and lifting a paw, to hiding, in order to mediate the situation. Meaning: animals get stressed from bad energy. (Of course they do!) Also meaning: animals have empathy. A book on the welfare of animals in animal-assisted interventions, the first of its kind, was also published last year. Still, this question is rarely asked.
Freedom # 3
There seems to be this cultural myth that being ill or disabled may grant a person a special bond with animals. Think breast cancer survivors riding their horses on the beach at sunrise, or autistic children communicating nonverbally—almost telepathically—with their dogs. But here’s the thing: my illness doesn’t connect me to animals. It’s given me more empathy (maybe), but a feeling is not a two-way connection. Susan Sontag has famously warned against illness metaphors (i.e. cancer as battle; AIDS as plague or invasion) and here, too, I would be cautious drawing a line between disability and mysterious animal abilities.
Animals weren't knocking on my door when I became sick. What did they care?
Freedom # 4
Every few months, I received a newsletter from an equine retreat I had looked into booking several years ago. The retreat boasted a week away with “the herd” where you followed them around a 320-acreage and experienced their spiritual horse healing powers. Meals were organic. Breakfast was buffet-style. Journaling was encouraged. Most importantly, the owner cared about running a trauma-informed space for both the guests and her horses. That is, the horses had agency too. Guests could not dump their deep anxieties onto them and then take their leave. Horses had to invite you into their spaces—in other words, guests had to learn the dictates of horse-consent. By all appearances, her practices seemed rooted in love. Throughout COVID, however, I’d noticed increasingly apocalyptic messaging:
I am also feeling anticipation for a new beginning and the end of evils reign upon our planet. We have been lulled into the false security of a comfortable compromise, slaves of our governments, and oblivious to the hidden horrors of the harvesting that has been the reality of planet Earth for centuries. I am ready for the Great Awakening and the shift into higher levels of existence.
A painting of Jesus with his arms lovingly open was attached at the end of this particular newsletter, along with a link to a well-known fake news site.
The woman who ran the retreats also painted and wrote books about her horse herd. My favourite was a painting titled Heart Therapy. A girl stands in the centre of the painting. Her eyes are closed, her hands clasped calmly over her heart. Five horses surround the girl, their eyes locked powerfully onto her face. It’s painted in soothing purples and blues. What is it about alternative health movements, I wondered, that shifts so easily into cult-like ideologies?
Freedom # 5
The truth is, people have weird ideas about animals, or about what animals (even fake ones) can and can’t do for us. Is trans-species dysphoria actually a thing? Will robot pet companions really reduce social isolation for older people? (Probably not.) Are dogs really the best medicine? And do they really love us unconditionally? (Again, probably not.)
Animals doing emotional (or even spiritual) labour isn’t new, but it has entered into a distinctly public domain over the last decade. There are animals everywhere—in offices, hospitals, care homes, schools, on planes—so that we might feel better. Outsourcing our emotional despair onto animals exploits their empathy. My boyfriend’s family dogs, for example, get stressed when people around them joke argue—tragic. What I’m trying to say is, animals are at risk of being certified as emotional dumping grounds. We shouldn’t forget that their hearts can be hurt too.
Heart Therapy by Liz Mitten Ryan
Image description: A painting of a girl surrounded by five horses. The girl’s eyes are closed and her hands are clasped over her heart. The horses all stare at her peacefully.