Painting Our Children Into a Corner

horse disrespectI learned something horrifying today about one of the things children are taught to do in some horse therapy programs. Here’s a picture to show you.

They paint the horse.

That’s right. They are taught that a horse is a “perfect canvas.” They paint things that help them process difficult emotions, which is good standard use of art therapy.

But painting those things onto a living being adds a dimension of abuse to an otherwise healing experience.

There are adult sex parlors where men paint designs (mostly targets, bulls-eyes, and arrows, as you might imagine) onto women’s nude bodies. Many people consider those acts to be degrading, and the people who live in and work near such parlors generally try to keep the activity hidden from children so that children do not see a living woman being made into an impersonal canvas — a body without any meaning beyond her physical expanse of flesh. Yet the women who participate in those acts agree to do it, and are paid to do it. So what does it mean that it’s still degrading to them . . . but this act is not degrading to a horse?

In many spiritual and religious traditions, all living things are connected. Even in modern biology, animals such as horses are seen as the literal relatives of the human children who are told it’s all right to paint on their skin because they are nothing more than a canvas.

aa5603_xThe objects in the picture to the right are perfect canvases. They are not alive, not breathing, and not capable of looking into the eyes of a child and expressing emotion. They do not arch their necks and touch long, soft muzzles to the chest of crying children who’ve been abused to gently comfort them. Horses do that. Canvases don’t.

What are we teaching our children in “therapeutic” programs that encourage them to see living animals who have comforted them and been kind to them as nothing more than a canvas to paint on? Are we not teaching the same abuse that wounded them so badly they are in this program of healing to begin with? Did not their abuser look at them — at their loving and gentle child faces and eyes and hearts — and see nothing but a perfect canvas for them to paint their emotions and desires on?

Painting horses in programs that are supposed to be healing perpetuates the view of all abusers, that living things are not really real, and that they matter only in so much as they satisfy the immediate needs of whoever is in the position of power. It pulls the culture of abuse and its twisted system of values and ethics back over the heads of these innocent child victims like dark and eyeless hoods, reinforcing the very idea that the Other Person needs no thought, no consideration, and no respect. And in making them into tiny abusers, themselves, it primes the pump for the wounding to continue on – unabated, unseen, flying beneath the radar of “it’s only a horse.” Just like the abusers who say, “it’s only a child.”

For the love of children, for the safety and healing of all children, when you give them a paintbrush, give them paper or canvas. Let their hands touch their therapeutic horses only with a loving caress, not with the very same tarbrush of indifference and arrogance that harmed them to begin with.

–Dawn Hill Adams, Ph.D.