Ask these questions before booking!

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If you buy any packaged food or drink, the label tells you the ingredients, while the product name follows industry standards. You know exactly what it’s called and what’s in the packet. It does what it says on the tin.

Not so with therapy or equine sessions . . . . .

Why’s that? Well, counselling and psychotherapy are unregulated professions. Same for equine practitioners.

Shockingly enough, anyone can set up a counselling service or advertise themselves as a psychotherapist. Some professions in the mental health world, such as being a GP doctor or a psychiatrist, or a psychologist are legally-defined as protected titles. For example, to practise in the UK, any GP or psychiatrist must have a GMC number (being registered with the General Medical Council). Any psychologist must be registered with the HCPC (Health and Care Professions Council).

Fortunately, most mental health practitioners are conscientious and take their training seriously. At my last count, there were over 40,000 members of BACP in the UK, for example. These people joined the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy to enhance their qualifications and professional standing by joining a public register regulated by the PSA (Professional Standards Authority). Other professional membership organisations are available too.

The picture can get even fuzzier when it comes to equine sessions where human practitioners partner with horses for the benefit of human clients. Again, currently in the UK, there is no legally-protected title for this work and no minimum training standards. Happily, in 2021 a consultation got underway to establish a Human Equine Interaction Register for professionals in this field (if you’ll pardon the pun). This register may take a while but is a big step.

However, all is not lost if you are somebody who’s seeking these services. There are qualified and conscientious practitioners out there. It’s just a question of finding one. So here are the questions that I recommend you ask any mental health therapist or indeed any provider of equine sessions. This looks like a long list and you can pick which questions matter most to you.

  • How do you describe your service?
  • Are you fully qualified or still in training?
  • What qualification(s) do you hold?
  • Are you a member of a professional body with a code of ethics and a complaint process?
  • Do you have regular supervision with a recognised senior professional in your scope of practice?
  • Can I see your published fees and customer contract?
  • Do you have a privacy policy?
  • How do you put diversity and inclusivity aims into practice?
  • How does your approach generate beneficial human change?
  • Is there any published evidence for this method?
  • Do you undertake regular CPD to update your skills? Do you have examples from the past year?
  • How do you determine which client work falls within your ethical scope of practice?
  • Do you routinely measure results? How do you know what works?

Wow! Why all the fuss?

Well, along with many other mental health and equine practitioners, I believe in high standards of care. This is precisely because many people seeking counselling or equine-facilitated therapy are looking for a safe and confidential space to explore their own process. Change can be emotional and scary. That’s why I believe these clients deserve the best professional support available – whether or not they might fulfil the diagnostic criteria for a mental health condition such as trauma or PTSD (there’s even a debate about the helpfulness or otherwise of such labels ). Sometimes the difficulty can be more severe, other times clients are actively seeking a space to talk, or to experience being with horses.

Just for the record, so you know where I’m coming from: I’m a psychotherapist who started my initial counselling training over 20 years ago. Nowadays I’m a therapist and supervisor accredited in the UK by BACP and COSRT, among other mental health accreditations such as Addiction Professionals. I’m also a psychotraumatology specialist accredited by ITTI, having trained with some of the famous published authors on trauma. I’m doubly qualified in equine-facilitated therapy, first by LEAP and secondly by IFEEL (with an Ofqual-regulated Level 5 Certificate). I undertake 30 – 100 hours of CPD each year. I seek supervision in mental health and equine and trauma fields with senior members of each profession. I teach higher-level qualifications in mental health as part of my directorship at The Grove Practice, as well as holding previous tutor roles on both a Level 5 and Level 6 training run by IFEEL Method Qualifications. I was one of the leaders of a psychotraumatology service for survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire and I’ve successfully provided therapy for uniformed first responders, along with therapy for veterans through Help 4 Heroes and Walking With The Wounded. In 2019 I participated in an early series of meetings which led to the formation of the HEIR steering group which is developing a public register for equine-human practitioners. Latterly, I was invited to join the complaints panel of the National Council for Psychotherapists. You can see a full list of my credentials here.

That isn’t to say that I’m perfect or that I never make mistakes – I certainly do from time to time. The important thing when that happens is that I’m accountable to my client, my supervisors, to my professional membership organisations, and to the wider profession. Enough about me.

In mental health, there are all sorts of styles of therapy and titles for therapists: counsellor, psychotherapist, psychosexual and relationship therapist, hypnotherapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, counselling psychologist. Psychiatrists are GPs with additional mental health training as a specialism. Only GPs or psychiatrists can prescribe pharmacological medication.

There are loads of other kinds of therapists such as nutritional therapists, dance and movement therapists, art therapists, hypnotherapists. Or consumers talk about retail therapy or lager therapy! This means ‘therapy’ is a word with many meanings. There are other complementary therapists offering approaches such as acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, osteopathy or cranial-sacral osteopathy. Each can have its place and deliver notable benefits. Nobody has exclusivity over ‘the truth’. Please be aware and make sure you get proper details so you can make an informed decision about participating in any therapeutic approach.

In the equine arena (more puns, sorry!), there are so many different titles and styles: equine-assisted therapy, equine-facilitated therapy, equine-facilitated traumatology, equine assisted learning, equine-assisted activities, animal-assisted therapy, therapeutic riding (such as at centres affiliated with the Riding for the Disabled Association [RDA]). The list goes on, creating confusion and debate: among service users, let alone among professionals.

My own view is that any practitioner should be trained appropriately in mental health, if they are going to work with clients who bring mental health issues to the sessions. The EAGALA model, for example, runs with two facilitators at a client session: one who is a mental health professional, the other who is an equine specialist. For my own part, I already had a mental health accreditation before training in equine-facilitated work: so both bases are covered at the same time. Sometimes clients come to a session with one aim in mind, but can get overwhelmed if unexpected material comes up. That’s why I believe a mental health qualification or at least being trauma-informed is essential in any human development work, whether it takes place in a consulting room or in a paddock.

Training standards in mental health and/or equine services can vary widely. Courses can last for a weekend or for years. Training institutes can be Ofqual-regulated with internal quality assessment and external validation, or with courses accredited by an external industry body, or run by an individual trainer independently of any external scrutiny.

For equine sessions, do ask the practitioner or centre what kind of service they are offering: are they a mental health professional, or an educator, or an executive coach, or a specialist in working with children or neurodiversity, or something else? What led them into this work? How will they be accountable to you? Be brave, ask the direct questions. If applicable, also ask them about their knowledge of horses and their equine welfare practices. Trust your instincts about the responses you receive. Look around so you have choice.

In my view, shared with many other equine professionals, there’s a subtle distinction between “equine assisted” where the animals could be seen as working to the human agenda; compared to “equine facilitated” where the horses are viewed as sentient partners working alongside the human practitioners. I subscribe to the “equine-facilitated” descriptor.

A final request: please remember that I mean everything in this article kindly and respectfully. I care about client care in our profession.

There are some wonderful practitioners and therapists out there, all doing good work in a world which sorely needs it.

Just make sure you chose one of them.