I recently read an article entitled: “What Horses Teach Us About Systemic Oppression” by Julia Alexander and it resonated with me because I was working on this article.
Funnily enough, I was going to write the article yesterday, but it was a freezing cold -26 degrees here and so my own agenda morphed into blanketing the equines rather than writing about them. It was after I chased them around trying to convince them that the blanket was a good thing that I came back to write the article and had to laugh out loud. Here, I was going to write about the need for being fully aware in AAT of the fact that the animals have their own agenda which is not our agenda or our client’s agenda. I was going to write about the ethics of ensuring we are considering all 3 agendas in the work and to not allow our human agendas to lead the session against the animal’s will. And then I chased my mini donkey around and half lassoed him to get his blanket on. I gave up on my pony because he refused to be caught and so I allowed him to make the choice to not wear a blanket although it was going to be steep -30’s overnight – so who did I do the right thing by?
Did I do the right thing by the donkey I forced to wear his blanket or by the pony I allowed to refuse because I gave up trying? It can be argued that systemic oppression does not apply to forcing someone to do something that is for his own good if he is in your care.
When I think of this in the context of AAT, I think of it on two levels: One level includes the need to ‘force’ an animal to undergo things s/he may not want to ensure his/her wellness and the other level is regarding the agendas that we have as therapists and clients in the medium of AAT. When we bring animals into our AAT practices, we become their ambassadors and are responsible for all tenets of their welfare. We must complete their wellness checks or give first aid when needed or we are not meeting our ethical obligation to care for them. They may not want these treatments, but what if they just don’t want to work the day your client chooses them in your AAT practice? Are they allowed to say no?
This is where the 3 agendas come in and also possibly animal oppression. Let’s do this through an example:
Josh is attending therapy because his mother has died. Josh has attended traditional counselling but it has not been effective. Josh is an animal lover and his father is hoping that by working with animals and an AAT mental health therapist, Josh will get the help he needs.
You are that therapist and you have a horse who is very gentle by nature. Josh has no experience working with horses and is excited to brush this horse. When you and Josh go toward the horse, it turns away to graze. Here are 3 possible agendas at play: 1. Your agenda is to build rapport with Josh, 2. Josh’s agenda is to brush the horse, 3. The horse’s agenda is to eat. What is the best ethical approach to helping Josh in this moment?
There are many ethical options. First, you could help Josh understand that the horse is a sentient being with her own feelings and wants. You can ask Josh what he thinks you both should do. This would give you a good indication of Josh’s awareness, depth of empathy and many more important social skills. In doing this, you would be meeting your agenda, which is to get to know Josh and you would be meeting the horse’s agenda, which is to eat but you wouldn’t be meeting Josh’s agenda as he wanted to brush the horse. Second, you could catch the horse and bring her back to brush her, meeting both yours and Josh’s agendas but not the horse’s.
So how can you meet the 3 agendas? Perhaps Josh can get some food to offer your horse. When she comes to him, she gets to eat while you teach Josh to brush her and build rapport. All 3 agendas will have been met!
As a psychologist who has been practicing AAT for 20 years as well as offering certification in AAT to professionals, it is my opinion that we should work to meet the 3 agendas when working with animals in practice. Our therapy animal partners have their own wants and needs and it is our duty to respect them. It is not ethical to not consider our animal’s preferences or to drop our agenda or convince our client to drop theirs if our agendas are disrespecting the agendas of our animals.
I might go so far as to say, now that I read Ms. Alexander’s article, that we may be ‘oppressing’ our therapy animals if we ‘force’ them to do what we want them to do in AAT for our personal agenda or that of our client.
It often takes more work to meet our agendas when working with and respecting our animals. Many practitioners have pre-knowledge of working with animals before partnering with them in professional AAT practice. It is our due diligence to ensure that we are checking in on our beliefs and values about animals before we practice with them and during every single AAT session. There is a very good chance that our pre-lived experiences will influence the agenda of the session. If in fact, we are moving ahead with our human agendas without consideration for our therapy animals’ agendas, then we are very most likely practicing animal oppression rather than animal assisted therapy.
Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA