I recently read an article entitled “What Horses Teach Us About Systemic Oppression” by Julia Alexander that resonated with me as I work on this article.
Funnily enough, I was going to write the article yesterday, but it was a freezing cold -26 degrees outside 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 that animals have their own agenda – not our agenda nor that of our clients. I was going to write about the ethics of considering and equally weighting all three agendas to avoid our human agenda of leading the session against the animal’s will. At this same moment, I found myself chasing my mini donkey around the property and half lassoed him to get his blanket on. I gave up on my Shetland pony because it refused to be caught so I allowed it to make the choice to go blanket-less despite the prediction of a steep -30 degree temperature overnight – so whom did I do right by?
In reality, it can be argued that systemic oppression does not apply to forcing someone to do something that is for its own good if it 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 it may not want to do to ensure its health while the other level regards our therapeutic agendas in the context of AAT. When we bring animals into our AAT practices, we become their ambassadors and we are responsible for all tenets of their welfare. If we do not conduct wellness checks (despite their protests) or give first aid when needed, then we are not meeting our ethical obligation to provide care. However, what if they simply refuse to work the day your client chooses them in your AAT practice? Are they allowed to say no?
This is where the three agendas come in and possibly animal oppression. Let us 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 avid animal lover and his father is hoping that by working with the animals and an AAT trained 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 this horse is perfect for him to begin sessions with. Josh 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 through working with your horse, 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. Firstly, you could help Josh understand that the horse is a sentient being with its own feelings, wants and needs. 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 would not be meeting Josh’s agenda, as he wanted to brush the horse. Secondly, you could catch the horse and bring her back to brush her, meeting both your and Josh’s agendas but not the horse’s.
So how can you meet all three agendas? Perhaps you can suggest to Josh that he get some food to offer your horse. If she comes to him, then it gets to eat while you teach Josh to brush and build rapport. All three agendas will have been met!
As a psychologist who has been working in the medium of AAT for 18 years and who offers a certification in AAT to helping professionals, it is my professional opinion that we should always strive to meet the three agendas when working with animals in practice. Our animal partners are helpers in our work with their own wants and needs. For ethical reasons, we must acknowledge and meet these needs as much as is possible.
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 whether it be because of our personal agenda or that of our client.
It often takes more work to meet our agendas when working with animals, as it is imperative to work around or within their agendas. Many people have much pre-knowledge of working with animals before collaborating 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 most likely practicing animal oppression rather than animal assisted therapy.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA