One of the most profound things I have learned as a clinician providing Equine Experiential Learning and Psychotherapy (EELP), is the astonishing value of fully being in the presence of an equine partner. For the uninitiated, that may sound a little like New Age psychobabble. But, when you understand that we truly do–in every sense of the word–partner with our horses in therapy sessions, you can begin to understand the dramatically different dynamics at work in EELP as opposed to conventional therapies.
I had to learn to trust my own instinct while letting go of any preconceived agenda of how a session should proceed. Relational sessions don’t follow an easily predictable, linear process. Instead, they unfold in singular and wonderfully meaningful ways. To see and understand what is happening, we must be fully present and mindful of what is unfolding.
“Being present” sounds like a passive activity, but actually is an exciting–often thrilling–experience. To the outside observer, it may seem as though nothing is happening in the session. But, for the person who is interacting with the horse, their experience is a revelation of ideas, signs, and information that can lead to life-changing understanding.
Rich complexity from utter simplicity
What is most wonderful about the astonishing speed with which ideas can be communicated and understanding can be achieved through Equine Experiential Learning and Psychotherapy, is the sublime simplicity of its practice.
Whether it is the horses, the dogs, the cats or our other nonhuman animal residents that choose to participate in a session, they are able to put our human clients into near immediate and extraordinary ease. They do this by naturally being present without judgment or expectations. They do not care about a person’s physical appearance or ability, or a person’s race, sexual orientation, gender, hair color, clothing, degrees, accomplishments or “failures.” What begins with basic acceptance can quickly grow. The offering of a “nose bump,” feeling the warm breath from a horse’s nose on the back of our human hand, seeing them take in the information of who we are with the sensory reception of their whiskers, this experience alone begins to create a connection between two species who seemingly speak different languages but share a primal but deep ability to communicate and to understand one another.
A simple nose bump begins the path to a relationship. For some clients, this may be the first relationship where they feel safe to be themselves, to be seen, to explore what it may feel like to truly be in relationship with another social being. And for the many individuals who have been traumatized by humans in their life and find it inconceivable to trust another person with their wounds and their vulnerability, creating connections with the horses can become a source of healing and an eventual bridge to the possibility of healthy human relationships.
Equine Experiential Learning and Psychotherapy (EELP) has become recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., who is one of the most respected individuals in the field of trauma research and treatment, addresses the impact of equine therapy in his must-read book, The Body Keeps The Score.
Maria’s story from Dr. van der Kolk: Maria, a 15-year-old Latina, one of the more than half a million kids in the United States who grow up in foster care and residential treatment programs. Maria is obese and aggressive. She has a history of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and has lived in more than 20 out-of-home placements since age eight. The pile of medical charts that arrived with her described her as mute, vengeful, impulsive, reckless, and self-harming, with extreme mood swings and an explosive temper. She describes herself as “garbage, worthless, rejected.”
After multiple suicide attempts Maria was placed in one of our residential treatment centers. Initially she was mute and withdrawn and became violent when people got too close to her. After other approaches failed to work, she was placed in an equine therapy program where she groomed her horse daily and learned simple dressage. Two years later I spoke with Maria at her high school graduation. She has been accepted by a four-year college. When I asked her what had helped her most, she answered, “The horse I took care of.” She told me that she first started to feel safe with her horse; he was there every day, patiently waiting for her, seemingly glad upon her approach. She started to feel a visceral connection with another creature and began to talk to him like a friend. Gradually she started talking with the other kids in the program and, eventually with her counselor.
Over and over again I have found that children and youth who have lived in foster care or residential care, or perhaps have lived in chaotic families, or have been identified as “the problem” in a family that is filled with pain and stress, these young people who have refused to step into a counselor’s office, show up at a barn, nervous but eager to meet the horses. Many of these individuals have seen numerous counselors and have been labeled as resistant, angry, unapproachable, untreatable, and many other labels, including those that pathologize what has been a history of trauma, neglect and abuse.
As we walk out to the pasture and begin to meet the horses that are part of our therapy team, the nervousness settles, the defensiveness eases and what I witness is the ability to create a connection with this 1,200-pound being who greets them and opens the door for emotions to be expressed and experiences of abuse or trauma to be spoken of, perhaps for the first time.
This young person begins to experience a relationship with another being who shows up without judgment or predetermined stereotypes or labels. Clinically, what is happening is that new neural pathways are are being created as they more deeply connect with their new friend. At a human level, their lives are beginning again but with new foundational concepts of self and social relationships. They begin to allow themselves to be seen and experienced in new ways that are authentic and healing; ways that create a new relationship with themselves and with others.
As the clinician who is sharing in this journey, what brings me the greatest joy is to get to experience this young person’s shift away from a place of deep sadness, depression, anger, and hurt. It often begins with softened eyes, a smile, and a hopeful question: “When can I come back again?”
Brenda Newell, LICSW, CMHS
The Roots Institute at One Heart Wild Education Sanctuary