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The Role of the Practitioner

The use of complementary therapies for horses has increased no end over the last few years, and there seems to be little to stop the influx of new practitioners. New courses and new therapies are starting by the dozen. Surely this can only be a good thing, with all these people emphasizing the importance of equine health and welfare? You might think so, but I think there is also the potential for this lovely new world of equine care to come crashing down around us, unless we have a bit of a think about the responsibilities of both the practitioners and the well-meaning owners who seek their help.

As a trainee shiatsu practitioner [Ed. now qualified!] I've been watching things from the inside and a few factors have caught my attention, setting alarm bells ringing. I walk onto yards to do my case studies and immediately I am consulted by my "clients" and their friends on all matters - physical issues, behaviour and training, hoof-care, feeding, environment and management, saddle problems. And all because I am perceived as "the expert". It's lovely for the ego and I know that my lack of qualification in some of these areas does not prevent me from being able to offer helpful advice, particularly if I know that the alternative is some local "professional" I wouldn't want within a mile of my horse. But is it wise to assume that anyone qualified in one area knows anything about anything else? Of course we all know that complementary therapies are "holistic" by their very nature and so I need to know about such matters. But what am I really qualified to do and where do my responsibilities lie? When should I enlist the help of an additional expert? At what point does "holistic" become "Jack of all trades and master of none"?

In view of these problems, some courses provide additional training in the more peripheral subjects. Anatomy is fairly standard, certainly in shiatsu courses. Most teachers of equine complementary therapies will now include a section on behaviour. But considering that there are so few equine behaviour courses devoted to the necessary balance of theoretical study and practical application, can we really kid ourselves that these short behaviour modules equip us for the real world of working with troubled horses? A complementary therapy cannot be used as a panacea for all behavioural problems, when the root of the problem is so often the owner's behaviour and/or personality - the practitioner needs to recognise this and not contribute to what could be a very emotional roller-coaster for both the horse and the owner. But more on that later.....

Very often the biggest concern to a horse-owner trying to find a practitioner, is whether or not (s)he is qualified and accredited to some recognised organisation. Chiropractic, physiotherapy and acupuncture all have professional governing bodies and you know where you are with them (indeed only a vet may practise equine acupuncture, since it is invasive). Other therapies are more of a free-for-all - the local "back man" or "healer" may be very good or very bad and you are completely dependent on personal recommendation from a knowledgeable friend or vet as to which it will be. It's always worth finding out what the training involved, how much face-to-face tuition with an instructor was included - it's amazing how often a "qualification" actually only means that two or three long weekends of training were incorporated. Some therapies have now set up some form of accreditation, e.g. the Equine Shiatsu Association which provides a certain standard of training and continuing professional development. While I'm the last person to want to be caught up in bureaucracy, I suspect that this has got to be the way to go, at least for new practitioners without years of experience on which to rely. But even a qualification will only mean that you can pass the exams, not that you are necessarily any good - there is not yet a course (or exam!) in "feel".

Without exception, however, anyone who works with a horse is required by law to do so in keeping with the 1966 Vet Act. My clients sign a statement declaring "my vet is aware I have requested this shiatsu session" and that is enough to cover me legally. In order to obtain this permission, the owner simply phones the vet. Some vets are frustratingly(!) conscientious and won't give permission unless (s)he has seen the horse recently; but more commonly, the vet has no idea what the therapy is, hasn't seen the horse recently (if ever!) yet will give permission anyway! While this is convenient for the practitioner, does this not make a mockery of the vet act?

On a related subject, if the law requires a healer, who might not even touch the horse, to obtain vet permission then should not the law apply equally to a "behaviourist", afterall is it not the case that a vast percentage of behavioural problems are related to pain? I would suggest that the vet act is even more relevant to a trainer who routinely encourages a horse to canter around a round-pen as part of his/her training. But then where would we draw the line? Should we bother a vet just because we want to have a riding lesson and need permission for the instructor to teach us? A few years ago I moved to a new yard and someone commented that, despite months of weekly lessons with an instructor, her horse was still unable to canter on the right rein. I had a look and suggested that maybe she wanted to get the back and saddle checked. Sure enough, three back treatments and a new saddle later, the horse was able to canter on the right rein - yet the instructor actually commended the rider on the hours of work she'd put into his training!!!!! Maybe the vet act should apply to riding instructors after all.....

Let us now put the politics aside and look more at what happens when the horse actually has some sort of treatment. What sort of support does (s)he need? As already mentioned, complementary therapies tend to work on a "holistic" level; they do not distinguish between the physical and the emotional properties of the body. As a simple example, if you feel stressed and/or emotional then your body posture and muscular tension will reflect those feelings. If you are in physical pain then your emotions will be different from occasions when you are not in pain. So what actually happens when we release these pains and tensions?

Sometimes after receiving a shiatsu treatment I feel that I am so lifted and happy that I am bouncing off the walls and desperate to go and do something - there is nothing I feel I could not do. Other times I feel I just want to sit down and have a hug and a cry. Either way I find it can be a huge emotional release and a reassurance that life is ok. One person I treated felt a lot of anger leaving her and she needed to flail her limbs around and hit the floor. Someone else felt light-headed and almost drunk (partly my fault as it was one of my first treatments and through inexperience I had failed to ground her properly). These sorts of emotions can be triggered just through lightly holding a specific acupressure point.

Since I have no reason to believe that horses are unable to experience similar emotions, I am fully accepting of the possibility that a horse would experience a treatment similarly. Are we prepared to allow a horse to release anger and other emotions in the same sort of way? One of the first lessons I learnt on my course was that we should never force shiatsu (or any therapy) on the horse and I am fully in support of that. But what does it mean? Can any of us read equine behaviour well enough to know whether we are forcing it on the horse? Is the horse loose in a field and able to walk away at any time, or is it in a stable? Generally we treat in stables because it is most convenient. But that makes it harder to know if the horse would rather we didn't continue. Just because the horse stands there and allows things to happen doesn't mean to say it is a willing participant. I have actually seen someone supposedly using a particular acupressure point to encourage a horse to be calm - but I suspect the fact that initially she was holding tightly onto the headcollar and not allowing him to move had rather more to do with the ensuing "calmness"!

I've done a number of treatments where I felt the horse was very worried about part of the treatment. The horses might not have prevented me continuing, but there were enough "displacement behaviours" and a general air of anxiety that I felt I should stop. These were horses who were used to having people handle them and there was nothing particularly invasive about what I was doing. I genuinely felt that there was something there which needed releasing but that the horse wasn't ready to release. Afterall, is that not so often the case with traumatised humans? We might suspect deep down that the horse would feel better afterwards if we could just "get in there and do it", but does the horse really deserve that lack of respect and patience? I would much rather come back another time and try again, peeling back the layers of worry gradually. One time I felt that the owner wasn't sufficiently supportive to the pony ("he's just being a little sh*t") and so I didn't even try to work with anything that worried him. Afterall, I don't want to give him a treatment that reassures him that life is ok, when it clearly isn't. We need to appreciate that just because we have a tool that can be used to remove the protective security blanket of tension and behavioural problems, doesn't mean to say we should use it. Some horses need to keep their safety nets well and truly in place, however frustrating we might find the resulting behaviour.

I recently heard of someone offering Shamanic ceremonies for horses (yup the horse, not the owner) which was supposedly a great idea because it could open up the horse and give its full personality back. We can do the same sort of thing by training with positive reinforcement and encouraging the horse to offer behaviours spontaneously. Yet if the owner is not supportive and will go back to using some training method based on negative reinforcement or punishment then the horse can get caught on an emotional roller-coaster of being encouraged to "be his true self" but punished for doing so. If we want "the real horse" then we need to be prepared and allow for the consequences. Similarly I've heard about someone doing Alexander Technique for horses. While that sounds a great idea, is it not a little over the top, considering that there are so many horses around with such badly balanced/shod hooves? If the foundations are so wrong then what hope have we of correcting the rest of the body?

I don't intend this to be a negative look at the world of equine complementary therapies, completely the opposite. I truly believe that they are the way to go and that they offer our horses (and us!) many years of drug-free health which might otherwise be beyond reach. But let's keep things in perspective, retain our responsibilities and always look for the true cause of any problem. These are exciting times with so much potential - it is inevitable that we shall get things wrong and learn from our mistakes, but please let us try to avoid the mistakes we can predict.

Copyright Catherine Bell 2005