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This is branded content for Horses, Love & Science.

Horses, Love & Science: the Eight Commitments of I-Thou Horsepersonship

By Meg Kirby, The Equine Psychotherapy Institute

By the time I welcomed horses into my home and my heart, I was a practicing psychotherapist in private practice, and a mother of 30 years of age, having moved to country Victoria in order accommodate my and my family’s needs and dreams. And although at times I found it difficult not having had years of formative experiences with horses, my unique skills, background, and life experiences have allowed me to experience and approach horsepersonship, horse training, horse ownership and inter-species relating in a different way.

Even though I can and do mentor people in an excellent and clear system of horse-relating, I am comfortable to admit that I'm not an expert horse trainer and I am not a particularly good rider. My temperament and personal qualities include heightened sensitivity, wilfulness, intense feelings, and emotions. I like change, unpredictability, freedom, and creativity. Many excellent horse men, women and animal trainers I have met or read about are consistent, calm, and even-tempered. They enjoy and display tendencies for consistency, predictability, sameness, and discipline. These tendencies are a good fit for relating with horses and horse training (and animal training) in general, but are not my natural talents per se. I had to develop these characteristics and capacities over time.

Over the last two and a half decades of living and learning with horses (and other species), I've had to work hard on, and work around, my genetics, temperament and tendencies, including my busy career as a psychotherapist and my training responsibilities (in my role as an equine, animal and nature assisted psychotherapy trainer). Not forgetting my full life as a dedicated mother of two gorgeous, sensitive, talented, non-horsey, but animal-obsessed daughters (who are now 18 and 23 years of age).

My passion for horses and all animals has kept me growing and learning throughout all of my life, particularly over the last 24 years, even though my progress as a horse trainer has been slow. My approach with horses has crystallised over the last 12 years into a clear system of relating. I teach this system of relating with horses as the foundation of my Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning training programs at The Equine Psychotherapy Institute.

I have noticed that many, very experienced horse-people that I teach this system of relating to, have very different range of knowledge, skill, attunement, values and interest in what I would think of more generally as conscious horsemanship or horse training. This initially surprised me. Many have significant gaps in knowledge of horses as a species, practical skills, attunement and empathy. The basics for any good, healthy, and mutual relationship or intimacy.

So, my goal became to operationalise or spell-out a way of being with horses, training horses, learning with horses and learning from horses, as simply as I can, for the good of all horse-people and most importantly, horses.
I-Thou Horsepersonship, though a mouthful, is fundamentally a clear, kind, loving, safe and simple approach, where horses have their species-specific needs met, and where horses benefit from the relationship with people. This has always been a central feature of my personal mission or life’s work : to improve the quality of life, wellbeing and lived subjective experience of all horses living with people.

In the past, and too often still in the present day, many horses endure loss, violation, and punishment due to ignorance, misunderstanding and unintentional harm produced by unaware people and horse-human relationships, as well as non-reflective traditions or standards of horse care and horse training.

In general, when interacting with horses or considering a particular training approach or method you read or are exposed to, a good rule of thumb I share with people, is to ask yourself the following questions: ‘would I feel comfortable or okay doing this (insert any interaction with horse) with my other (human and non-human) friends, family or loved ones?’ , and, ‘If I did this (or a parallel of this request, amount of pressure, demand or specific behaviour) with a friend, family member, colleague, student, neighbour or animal friend …would they want to spend time with me?…would they feel safe with me?…would they feel my care?…would they understand my communications?…would they feel some mutual benefit or enjoyment?…would they feel an ability to express, say yes, or no?…would they feel enriched in some way?…would they feel loved? If not, it might be time to reflect, pause and try something different.

Most people I meet do want the best for their horses, their intentions are good.

I believe that all our interactions and relationships must be governed by basic ethics and non-harming values, as a minimum. Given that we now know both human and non-human social mammals all have feelings and emotions, experience fear, pain and suffering and have brains that are socially wired (Bekoff, 2000) it is our responsibility to ensure anyone in our care is treated ethically and has the opportunity to experience a good quality of life, dictated by their species-specific needs (Masson & McCarthy, 1995). I don’t believe an anthropocentric (human-centred) perspective is ethical and it can never be truly safe, in the context of inter-species relating. Awareness, phenomenology (noticing ‘what is’ rather what we ‘think’), insight, reflection and education are together, the archenemy of the unconscious, anthropocentric (human-centred) perspective. It is a serious responsibility to care for others (including other children, adults and non-human social mammals in our care). I believe it is our shared responsibility to ensure we are all emotionally, psychologically and physically safe, healthy and well.

Owning, living with and learning with horses is a privilege that brings significant responsibilities. Responsibilities require commitments. So, let me introduce you to the into the 8 commitments of I-Thou Horsepersonship. If these commitments ring true to you, or sound sensible, you can buy my book and have a read about all the specific details about each commitment in full, and use some of the exercises to support your practice.

The 8 Commitments of I-Thou Horsepersonship
1. Love: demonstrate your Love in specific daily actions
2. Values: document and hold yourself to account
3. Personal Development: track your specific self-experience and patterns
4. Trauma-informed: know your horses' expression of trauma
5. Phenomenology: observe 'what is' rather than 'what you think'
6. Science: intelligently apply equine science and equitation science
7. Practice & Discipline: use pleasure-touch, herd-sits, walks, aware-riding
8. Ethics & Enrichment: focus on what is safe, good, enriching for horse

This system is clear, defined and I give good examples for what and how to bring this into your life with horses.
I wish you and your horses all the best.
- Meg Kirby

Meg Kirby is an Author, Founder, Director and Senior Trainer at The Equine Psychotherapy Institute and Animal Assisted Psychotherapy Institute, Mental Health Social Worker and Psychotherapist of over 25 years. Meg is the founder of I-Thou Horsepersonship, championing an ethical and aware relationship with horses.

Her latest book Horses, Love & Science is available now in paperback and ebook on Amazon.

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