A Trauma-Focused Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy Experience
Yesterday, I met with Linda for another equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) session. I had not planned on requesting a session, but Alice, who has been “helping” me learn and practice with Mateo, is out of town this week, and I felt the need to process my last practice session with Mateo, which Alice video recorded for my Natural Lifemanship (NL) Intensive training video assignment. Mateo is a 20-year-old Mustang who was rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and for the first 10 years of his life, had a variety of training experiences. He was then adopted but didn’t get much human interaction. As a result, he returned to a somewhat feral state and became very untrusting of humans. He was then adopted by another individual who provided guidance, patience, and lots of positive reinforcement, and he is enjoying life more in relationship with his herd of horses and humans. Alice is a trained equine specialist, and Linda is an equine-facilitated psychotherapist. Linda is also trained in NL. Equine-assisted therapists and equine specialists, or equine professionals as they are called in NL, partner to facilitate therapy, and both have unique skill sets. One brings a clinical perspective and the other, a horse perspective to the therapy process. The Intensive training I’m currently in is Level Two of NL certification. It’s quite different from the Level One Fundamentals training I just completed, which I greatly enjoyed and learned so much from.
It’s so good to come into this morning’s therapy session with Linda knowing that there is no expectation, except for the one to just let go and have absolutely no agenda with the horse. I don’t need to do anything but just be. It is a warm day, but not as hot as my previous practice session with Mateo and Alice when it was 91 degrees out, unseasonably warm for southern California and even warmer in the direct sun. My phone overheated for Pete’s sake as we were recording. Before my therapy session begins, I tune into the birds singing, the pitch of their song fluctuates ever so slightly. I try my best to attune to my body and my surroundings. I feel grounded and present in this moment. I feel warmth in my gut and chest, and this warmth extends to my extremities. As suggested by one of my NL trainers, I purposely expand my visual circumference as a way to stay connected to my body…to be present and to engage my whole brain. I take in the trees around me, all of the different horses as I walk past their stalls, their color and markings, the sound of soft nickers and neighs, the sweet smell of hay mixed with horsey smells, which I can almost taste. I enjoy the calm, gentle breeze that caresses my face and arms. I bring to mind that I am the client today, not the therapist in this moment. What transpires in therapy is important for me to capture and recall not only in my mind, but body.
It’s good to see Linda. Our last session was about a month ago. We have built a great therapeutic rapport, and today, I feel more comfortable and at ease in her presence. I think fleetingly of my own trauma history, how I lived primarily in the lower regions of my brain, the survival part, for some time, hyper-vigilant, fearful. The neural pathways here have been “muscled up” over the years, causing disconnect between the upper and lower regions of my brain. The result: fear, alarm, insecurity, shame, difficulty regulating my body at times. I have become increasingly aware of this during my NL training. I recognize that I can be easily triggered at the hint of stress or anxiety, no matter the situation, as the brain and body remember, but in particular during situations of interpersonal conflict.
I share with Linda the deep disappointment I felt after video recording my assignment with Mateo. I recall to her how I had come into the session feeling anxious, worried, and pressured about shooting the video, as I only had an hour to “get what I needed” for my assignment. Truly, that wasn’t enough time. The heat was suffocating that afternoon, and Mateo was spooked by a very large, silver trailer parked to the right of the round pen, an unfamiliar object that caused his arousal system to amp up. This caused my arousal system to go up, too. I have not particularly liked working in the larger pen. I prefer the smaller round pen, which offers a bit of privacy and feels more intimate, but it was under construction. In a nutshell, internally, I was all over the place, and Mateo, who is quite sensitive to pressure and expectation, picked up on it immediately. Horses, because they are prey animals, are extremely attuned to their environment, hyper-vigilant. They’re wired this way for safety. They rely upon their herd mates for safety and connection. They’re social animals and can build deep, connected relationships with their herd mates, much like human relationships. They’re extremely sensitive to what comes up in humans internally, one of the reasons why they are such wonderful therapy partners.
Alice continued to instruct me as she recorded my video. “Turn around this way and see if he follows you…,” etc. I felt stiff and awkward. When someone is dysregulated, there is a disconnect between their brain and body occurring. Giving verbal instructions or cues may cause the individual to attempt to stay in their neocortex (thinking/upper part of brain); however, it only causes further disconnect and dysregulation. The brain has trouble processing all of the stimuli. We need to communicate with the part of the brain that will help that person calm down. I needed bottom-up regulation, or movement and sensory input that would address the lower regions of my brain (primitive brain). No matter what I tried, I couldn’t regulate myself, and though she was only trying to help, Alice unknowingly increased the disconnect between my brain and body with her verbal cues. When I reviewed my video later, I was amazed at how arhythmic my movements appeared as I worked with Mateo. I was having a hard time taking in instruction while trying to regulate my body and connect with Mateo.
I explain to Linda that Mateo spent most of the practice session resisting my requests for connection. He was not to blame him. I would not have wanted to be around me either. Alice informs me later than when a horse picks up on all that messy internal stuff, humans can actually appear fuzzy to them, which to a horse is unsafe and unpredictable. Some horses avoid us when this occurs. This is vital information for a therapist to be aware of during a therapy session, as the horse is picking up on what’s happening in the client’s body. Sometimes, the client is so disconnected from their body that body sensations are outside of their conscious awareness, particularly when in a dissociative state. Each horse responds differently based on their own history, personality, window of tolerance, etc. Looking back, shooting that first video assignment was such a rich learning experience, as the feelings of frustration, helplessness, dysregulation, and anxiety I felt will certainly be experienced by clients I work with in the future. It’s part of the therapist’s role to help the client process how the horse responds to her and to begin to attune to her body sensations. I’m so glad that Mateo had the opportunity to resist…he had a choice. In this approach, we do not want to force a horse to do something he does not want to. Rather, we work on building trust and connection through attachment and detachment work. We want consent from the horse, not compliance or submission. Although it was quite frustrating in the moment, I’m grateful that I learned more about myself and Mateo and recognize how much anxiety I carry internally.
At the end of the session as I was talking to Alice, Mateo walked right over to me and touched my shoulder with his nose until I acknowledged him. I rubbed under his lower lip for several minutes, that soft, velvety area I love, which he typically doesn’t really like. Those moments were so tender, but rather than zoning in on that, I was so preoccupied with my own sense of “failure.” Alice said, He sees your “authentic self” now, not the one with expectation. I love that about horses. Yet, this was a lot to process.
Today, my therapy session begins in Mateo’s stall. I check in with myself prior to going in, placing a hand over my heart. “Breathe in, breathe out. Listen to the birds singing. Observe other horses in stalls next door in my peripheral vision.” I walk into Mateo’s stall and check in with him. I stand there for a few minutes just watching him eat hay from his hay bag. I’m wondering how much repair I may have to do with him because of the stress he experienced in our last practice session. Linda then walks over. She is standing just outside his stall. I move closer into Mateo and begin gently stroking his neck, attuning to my body sensations. “Stay calm, Mj. Breathe in, breathe out.” I observe Mateo chew, rhythmically. He loves his food. It feels good to stroke Mateo’s neck. I move to halter him, showing him the halter first, then gently drape the lead rope over his very tall neck. He puts his nose down to allow for the halter. Oh good! I was worried he would try to avoid me. After haltering Mateo and walking outside his stall, he almost trips over his feet. Linda and I notice that he has a limp, and as I walk him out and then around the stalls, it becomes more noticeable. Poor guy!!! I lead him back to his stall, as we don’t want to worsen whatever is going on. I hope it’s nothing serious. Linda asks me if I’d like to work with another horse, and I choose Journey. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to work with Journey! Linda asks what differences I notice between Mateo and Journey as I introduce myself in his stall, stroking his nose and face. I notice immediately that Journey has a more mellow, maybe even more tolerant, temperament. We spend a few minutes together as I continue to stroke his neck and muzzle. He allows me to halter him, lowering his head as I bring the halter toward his nose. As we walk down the middle of the stalls to the round pen, he doesn’t try to eat the hay laying on the ground as Mateo always does. He stops at the large round pen, the one I don’t like working in, because this is where he’s usually turned out. But then, when I ask him to come with me, he eventually follows. The clip-clop of his hooves on the pavement is soothing. We enter the newly renovated round pen The pen feels smaller than before, and the dirt on the ground is different, more sandy. I feel slightly bothered by this, but try to be more curious.
We give Journey several minutes to settle in. He finally takes a roll, his front legs folding as he lowers himself to the ground. For horses to do this, they have to feel safe, so that’s a good sign! I love the sound horses make when they roll and how they shake themselves off afterwards. Linda and I commence with some EMDR at the beginning of the session. I feel vibration in my hands as I hold the buzzers. The buzzing alternates from one hand to the other. I honestly can’t remember fully what the focus was initially…I think it was on the anxiety I was feeling with Mateo and then what I was feeling in the present with Journey, but it usually shifts based on what comes up. Journey is standing at a slight distance from us as I’m processing, but my gaze is softly on him. At times, I look away, to take pressure off him – this is a thing for me, not wanting to put excessive pressure on the horse. Linda asks me several times what is coming up for me in my body. Mostly, I feel calm, perhaps slightly in and out of some anxiety related to how Journey feels about being with me. There it is…overthinking… Journey is a veteran at being with clients while they are doing EMDR, Linda tells me. What I notice the most is that I feel calmer and safer with Journey. He just seems more friendly and open than Mateo, and I am drawn to this. He feels like a friend and my co-regulator. I note this to Linda. It’s like, “I’m here for you.” In comparison, Mateo avoids me when I am experiencing increased anxiety.
As the session is nearing the end, Linda asks if there is anything more I’d like from Journey, like to move closer to him. I’m hesitant because I’m concerned how he might respond. I take some deep breaths and inch my way closer. Then I slowly reach out my hand, and he touches it with his nose. I begin stroking the side of Journey’s head and inch even closer until I’m so close that I could give him a hug. Unlike Mateo, Journey seems okay with touch and doesn’t jerk his head away.
Then I get brave and ask if I can work on attachment with connection with Journey. Linda moves outside of the pen. As I begin, I experience “butterflies,” as I remember how difficult it was with Mateo in my last practice session. I take some more deep breaths. I move my body around to put pressure on his back hip, focusing my body energy there, and start making clicking sounds. Journey doesn’t cooperate right away. He’s standing, looking away, or grazing the ground. I increase the pressure because he’s ignoring me by snapping my fingers, calling Journey’s name, clapping my hands, moving my arms up and down, making more clicking sounds while maintaining the pressure on his back hip. “I think I’m feeling gun shy in asking Journey for connection,” I say. After a couple more minutes, Linda aks, “What do you think might be preventing you from really making the request?” It suddenly dawns on me that I’m not committed to the request. I’m curious, why is that? I don’t believe I can ask! I muster more intention, and then Journey cooperates! He turns into me, and as I move, he follows, and we walk together, side by side, around the pen, calmly, rhythmically. When Journey sighs, I sigh. When he lets out a little raspberry sound, I do too. He gets a little distracted, so I ask to re-connect, and he again turns into me to follow. Our session soon ends. In processing with Linda, I realize that it’s very difficult for me to ask for what I need from others. I am afraid of being rejected. I do things myself to avoid asking. We discuss how it takes vulnerability to ask for our needs to be met. I can easily help others, submit to others or comply, but rarely do I ask for what I need.
Linda tells me that she saw the exact moment when something in me shifted as I asked for connection from Journey, and that’s when he turned and noticed me, then cooperated. A subtle, yet intentional shift in my body energy – I committed to the ask, internally. I asked for what I needed. I needed connection. Linda also noticed that when Journey got distracted and I asked for re-connection, Journey cooperated much quicker. So, something I’m observing in my work with both Mateo and Journey is that both horses get distracted and disconnect. I’m curious if it’s something in me that’s causing this…am I disconnecting, perhaps shifting into my neocortex and disconnecting from my body? Overthinking? Very likely. I think I get worried that the horse will disconnect instead of trusting that my horse will stay with me. Disconnection from the horse is akin to rejection (for me). I’m worried the horse will reject me, just like in human relationships. And rejection hurts…abandonment hurts. Something to explore as I continue my own personal work and practice.
That moment of connection with Journey was so sweet and memorable, as it was with Mateo. Because I have experienced that connection with Mateo previously, it was tough when he avoided me during my last practice session. And that my video assignment appeared so erratic to others when I know I have it in me to connect with a horse was hard. I must remind myself that it’s about the process, not perfection. I just began working with horses for the first time in March during the Fundamentals training, which was 10-weeks long. I literally had no horse experience prior. I will learn from these moments.
I truly long to own or lease my own horse so that I have access to practice more freely and without cost. I pay Alice weekly for her time with any one of the horses. I’ve had to get creative in finding ways to make this happen. It’s quite expensive to own and care for a horse properly, and things could happen at any moment regarding their health. Large vet bills are a concern. Despite these obstacles, my hope and dream is to have a private practice facilitating trauma-focused equine-assisted psychotherapy (TF-EAP) and to work specifically with adoptees. How this could bring such healing, connection, and growth. My personal work in equine-facilitated therapy has been healing in a much different way than traditional therapy. It has provided increased self-awareness and insight into my own body sensations, increased connection to self, an understanding of how working with equines helps build better human relationships, and it’s brought profound joy, feelings of safety, and connection with horses. I’m learning ways to better self-regulate, and this work is helping to building new neural pathways in my brain. It all takes time. My healing journey continues.
Although gaining access to work and practice with a horse is challenging, I keep on. It isn’t easy. When I begin to doubt myself, my former clinical supervisor, who is also trained in NL and practices TF-EAP, encourages me to not give up. She reminds me that I was drawn to this work for a reason. Perhaps it is a calling. This is not the end of the story.
*Names of humans have been changed to protect privacy.
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