Horse Burnout in the Equine Therapy Industry

Horse Burnout Part Two

We are continuing the discussion on horse burnout and I am going to go into more detail about my findings regarding equine therapy organizations and how they measure up regarding the need for guidelines and accountability when it comes to horse care protocol.

In this post, I am talking about what my research specifically highlighted about the equine therapy industry when it comes to horse care standards. I am so excited that the results can be helpful for all horse lovers and those who are caretakers of horses. For me, this research has resulted in some wonderful communications and feedback from people throughout the horse industry, and I’m excited to see how these findings can apply and be useful outside and inside of the equine therapy industry. As you read this blog post, please think about how this research could be useful for you and your organization or your horse at home and connect with me. I’d love to hear from you. Please connect directly on my website or via social media links you will find on my website. If you want to send me a message directly on facebook or connect on my facebook page or instagram or twitter, that would be great.

What are your experiences with Horst burnout? Does this discussion resonate with you? If you’d like to share a short audio clip made on your smartphone, please send it to me at with the subject line given a voice to the horses audio clip and I’ll consider including it in a future podcast. Two of the most important aspects of this work for me are connected to community and collaboration. So hearing from you guys is really important to me.

Let’s dig in.

This particular project was the first of my research projects on horse happiness. And it posed the question, “Do therapy horses burnout?”.  There were 74 respondents from within the equine therapy industry.  Fifty two percent were equine specialists.  Sixty percent were therapeutic riding instructors.  Some were both equine specialist, with EAGALA and therapeutic riding instructors.  Thirteen percent of participants were mental health professionals on equine therapy teams.

And in some cases also certified as equine specialists. The vast majority of participants were EAGALA or PATH certified. I’d like to give a quick definition, a description of EAGALA and PATH International. EAGALA is the equine assisted growth and learning association. This model is a therapy system where the horse is viewed as the therapist, and it’s non ridden. The horse’s intuition is celebrated and acknowledged as the essential piece in equine therapy. The professional association of therapeutic horsemanship international or PATH international, offers specifically therapeutic riding lessons. There are other certifications within PATH that instructors can achieve. One in particular is driving, so there is more to it, but that’s the basic definition of both EAGALA and PATH.

Again, the vast majority of participants in this project were certified through EAGALA or PATH International.

This offered a lot of great opportunity to get insight from both organizations and to also be able to compare the two as the largest organizations that offer certification within the equine therapy industry when it comes to horse care standards. Feedback from participants suggested that many believe the equine professional certifications should have more stringent requirements specifically regarding education and experience. Based on the consistency of that piece of feedback, one of my recommendations after collecting data was that further inquiry into how equine professionals in the equine therapy industry could be better prepared before becoming certified, is one variable that could increase consistency in horse care standards and help reduce burnout and horses. And if you’ve read part one of this discussion, I talked a lot about the symptoms and causes of horse burnout and some strategies for alleviating it or preventing horse burnout.

The discovery that lack of consistency in horse handling throughout an organization is a major cause of horse burnout that many observed. Another notable and consistent piece of feedback is that many therapy horses are also rescue horses. So they have often experienced cruel treatment at the hands of humans before being rescued, and coming into an equine therapy program. Feedback indicates that these horses are more susceptible to being stressed based on an expectation of treatment they’ve received in the past. This was cited as something that needs more attention. So there was a recommendation in my conclusion of this project that recommends more inquiry into this subject and specifically with rescue horses. Equine therapy horses should be assessed more or the inquiry should be further made.

I’d like to offer you some of the specific data on horse burnout observed in the equine therapy industry.

So the question I asked was in what type of therapy sessions do you observe burnout in therapy horses? I asked participants to choose in a multiple choice question and asked them to choose all that apply. Over 80 percent said they observed burnout in riding therapy sessions for the horses during grooming and prep by volunteers. About 45 percent said they saw it here. About 30 percent observed burnout in equine assisted psychotherapy. So that’s unmounted. Around 25 percent said they see burnout in the equine assisted learning, which is a session which is another unmounted type of session and often will include a team building or will be specifically working with corporations. And lastly, under 20 percent said they see burnout in horses after sessions. So overwhelmingly burnout as observed in riding therapy sessions. So this question is important to the research because it shows that riding therapy may well be more stressful on horses than there’d be where no riding is involved.

Because of that, I made a recommendation for further inquiry to assess all the variables such as the potential for claustrophobia being felt by the horses with sidewalkers around, which may be causing stress. Also the energy of each person and potential for stress and anxiety with more people around the horse, and the possible lack of choice the horse may have on whether to participate or not, can be contributing to stress. And then overwhelmingly feedback said that horses need to be able to choose whether to participate in any session. And if they don’t have the option to say no, they don’t want to participate in a therapy session of any kind, participants consistently said that they noticed that can be a potential cause of burnout or stress trigger. And most definitely, I recommended further research with a foundation based on observing horses to further define what the causes of burnout and riding therapy are.

This subject, specifically around riding therapy and burnout needs more research, where we could maybe measure biofeedback in the horses to really ascertain the variables that are causing burnout and riding therapy sessions. What we definitely know is that there are more people in close proximity to the horse in riding therapy sessions depending on the physical ability of the client. In my personal experience, sidewalkers are usually needed in riding therapy sessions. So that means the horse has a person potentially leading him or her and also may have a sidewalker on both the left and right side. This could trigger claustrophobia depending on a person’s energy or their body language and lack of awareness or understanding of how sensitive horses are to their energy.

[13:25] They could be causing stress and the horse and having this happen time and time again can cause long-term stress and really lead to true burnout. Just the fact that it’s likely that the volunteers that are sidewalking are most likely different for the horse on any given day for any given session could very well be a factor. Those things deserve more research because of the amount of feedback from participants that says, “Hey, in riding therapy sessions, horses tend to burn out on a much larger scale and much more often than unmounted therapy or in other situations”.

Another question I asked participants was related to client population and the burnout observed with specific client populations.

So with clients who have experienced trauma 35 point three percent said they see burnout with clients who have physical diagnoses, which indicates these would be clients that are participating in riding therapy sessions. 52 percent of participants said they see burnout. Participants say they see burnout with men and women both had the same response. Thirty five percent participants see burnout with children and teenagers. In fact, 67 percent of participants see burnout with children and teenagers. So this question is a great accompaniment to the previous question regarding the need for further research on what causes burnout or what variables specifically cause burnout. In riding therapy, I asked participants about support and standards by certifying organizations. This question did not offer the option for further comment and based on participant input, it should have.

Data reflects that PATH international provides some detailed guidelines as well as support on horse care standards, whereas EAGALA offers guidelines without specific details or follow up support. So synthesis of the input from PATH and EAGALA certified practitioners, which were the large majority of participants in the survey, indicated that further discussion amongst the two certifying organizations with heavy emphasis on input from facilitators in the field can provide really valuable results regarding the standard of care and support offered to equine therapy practitioners and organizations. So what does that mean? Really? There are some guidelines and some followup support, but there is no accountability. There is no real ongoing support from an organization or a specialized team within the certifying organization to help the therapy organizations have a clear picture of horse care standards. And in equine therapy, it almost has become an afterthought. Now, that is my personal opinion based on the data that I have collected and based on the input that I have received from professionals in the industry.

The really encouraging thing that I discovered was that there are many individual equine therapy organizations that have developed or are developing their own horse care standard programs. Sharing these programs would mean community connection, which is very empowering, especially in this situation because, as we talked about in part one of this discussion, people who are doing this work are often overwhelmed because of the time and energy and commitment it takes and that is in addition to their daily lives, full time careers, and families, because they’re so committed to this work and feel so passionate about what they’re doing and how important it is. They continue and they make it happen, but the horses do tend to get overlooked when it comes to stress and longterm burnout, so more support is needed.

Certainly more support from the certifying organizations would make all the difference. If there were templates available..If there was an accountability system, included as part of the certifying process or the maintaining of certifications for individual organizations that would bring the subject of Horse Care Standards to the forefront and it would make it a priority for everyone. This is something that really needs to shift. This research project showed that invaluable information is available through operators in the field and there really is a common desire for more standards, guidelines, and support when it comes to horse health and happiness in equine therapy. Higher standards for certified horse professionals in the field of equine therapy was a need that was a common observation and the feeling that standards should be provided with followup support with the perspective that horse care is an objective subject, dependent on key variables, was one of the most important outcomes of this research. One, key observation was the need for more inquiry and ongoing inquiry regarding horse care standards and equine therapy.

There’s a real strong recommendation from my perspective for a team effort focused on uniting operators, facilitators, and certifying organizations by creating a mission statement based on a desire for unity. Horses need consistent movement and a simple diet with no grain in a natural lifestyle to thrive. Ulcers and other health issues are a symptom of a less than natural lifestyle often due to humans treating horses like humans rather than providing a lifestyle and care based on the way the course was designed to live. This finding prompted me to create a FREE 12 month ebook. It’s a digital tracking guide that’s really simple and intended to be efficient, that you can download for free on my website. It utilizes some key findings in my research as far as the needs of basic horse care standards with the goal of having healthy stress-free happy horses. You can incorporate it into a busy lifestyle and you’ll be able to tweak the areas of your own horse care program based on the findings of my research and then assess over time whether the changes that you’re making are helping or if maybe you need to consider other changes that are available.

Another core finding that I want to reiterate is that horses are often not allowed to choose not to participate. So this was actually one of the things that was unexpected. This was not something that I expected to see from participants and this was something that they inserted. This was not based on multiple choice question or something that I asked them in a very specific way. This finding was something that on a consistent basis, participants inserted or wrote in on their own as far as one of the important things that they see that does cause burnout and one of the important things that if honored can help horses to be able to get past burnout and heal or prevent future burnout in horses in the in the first place. In my opinion, the consistency of these observations from those who utilize that strategy of giving a choice to the horse shows positive outcomes for the horse’s health and happiness does make it worthy of further inquiry.

Listen to the podcast episode

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