The foundation's primary mission is to work directly with children, adolescents and adults with depression, anxiety, terminal illness or loss. The video at the right explains a little bit about the process of working with a horse as co-therapist.
Below you will find some blog entries initially posted to The Horse Collaborative that also give some insight into the process and experience of psychotherapy facilitated by the horses. You can find more on Jane's Blog.
A Horse, Attachment and Beauty: My work is based on the notion that the emotion that drives those of us to love horses, that bodily feeling of comfort we often have when we are near them, or even just see a photo of one, is connected to the life force within us that pulls us from our darkest moments. One of the adolescents I work with experiences great vacillations in her mood, and often suffers from a depression so severe she can’t move. When she is in a dark state her perceptions are marred by this darkness. She will creatively bend reality to fit her negative internal landscape. I use the word creative here because it takes a great deal of imagination to constantly twist reality towards the negative when one is in this sort of state. She can interpret any response or suggestion negatively. If there is silence she will fill it with self-criticism.
Of course the more negative we feel about ourselves, the more negative our interpretations are of reality, and the more we prove that there is something to feel depressed about. Further, if we are feeling depressed and interpreting the actions of others negatively they will often react to this negative mood with defended, or damaging gestures and verbal responses. As often is the case, this teen’s traumatic history created and supports her negative view of herself. Thus, it is understandable that she has learned to feel this way about herself. However, it is imperative that she find a way to see the parts of reality that do not support this negative self view if she is going to save herself from this debilitating depression. When she works with me I will often search for a way to help her move off of this cycle of depression, without devaluing her sense of reality. Without the help of my therapeutic horse, Jake, I’m not sure how I could accomplish this.
Thankfully, this client has that “thing” within that pulls one uncontrollably to love a horse(s). More, she is extremely intelligent, sensitive and caring of others. Her friends adore her, and they often will go to her when they have problems because they know she will understand. Hence, there are a lot of positive messages and experiences in her life, but she has to be able to “see” them. When she is riding Jake we talk about her feelings, her experiences and her often negative perceptions of herself, and the actions of others in relation to herself. When she is in these deeply depressive moods language, no matter how clever I might be as her therapist on a given day, does not help her to perceive even a small part of her world as positive. However, the one thing she can’t argue with is that visceral positive sense of attachment she has in relationship to Jake, for Jake, and the other horses in her life.
No matter how stuck she might be in the shadows of her history, when I ask her to pause in her feeling of attachment to Jake, her appreciation of him, love for him, and to consciously acknowledge and remember that bodily experience she can’t help but be moved. In that moment she can create a positive feeling in her body, her mood and so in her sense of self. That feeling for Jake, that moment of perception of Jake’s beauty becomes part of her own body. In a sense she can experience his beauty as her own.
From that tiny, but foundational experience of beauty within herself, she has been able to move off the circle of depressive reaction and action towards a more full sense of self. Like a rope thrown to someone drowning she can call upon that memory, and pull her way up and out.
Using the Natural Rhythms of the Horse's Gaits to Stabilize Emotional States: Many of us have experienced the calming effect of being around our horses and/or riding when we are feeling emotional distress. The smell of the barn, running our hands along their coats while we’re grooming them, listening to their breath as well as riding can all help us regain balance during stressful times in our lives. In my therapy I use all of these experiences to help stabilize children in crisis. However, one of the most powerful change agents is the feeling of the horse’s gaits during the riding component of the therapy session.
I have worked with several children who have bi-polar disorder, depression, or difficulty regulating their emotional states. Often a child or adolescent will come into the barn in an agitated or manic state showing extreme hyperactivity. These children can be unpredictable, explosive and at times dangerous to themselves or those around them. They act as though someone has turned a switch on to this intense and overwhelming emotional state, and they can’t find the off switch. That is, they feel as though something has taken over their bodies, and that they are not in control of their actions.
Sometimes in these states a client will swear at a caretaker, scream at me, and create a feeling of discomfort in the horses and every other living being at the barn. (In contrast, a depressed client might come in with very little energy, express having trouble making it to the therapy session, or show distress at even making a simple sentence. I’ll focus on the depressed client in a different post. ) When a child is feeling this sort of distress the rhythm of the gaits of the therapeutic horse (Jake) has been very helpful in stabilizing such extreme emotional states. More, the memory of the feeling of riding a horse in balance can be a tool for the child or adolescent to access for the rest of his or her life.
In one example, an adolescent client with a history of destructive behavior came to Bear Spot feeling very agitated. She was beginning a new school after many years at the same school, and was finding the transition extremely difficult. She came to the barn showing irreverent behavior to her mother, and an inability to listen to anyone when she was being addressed. She moved rapidly through the barn aisle from horse to feed room to tack room, slamming doors and swearing at her mother. She was in such a painful state of emotion, showing very little control over her actions, that I was not sure whether she would be able to continue the session safely However, her time with Jake is very important to her, and when I told her that she would not be able to ride Jake if she did not settle down she was able to dig deep within herself and gain enough control to continue.
She helped me groom Jake and that seemed to help her settle a little, but not completely. When she started to ride I walked next to her and did not proceed with my usual psychotherapeutic questions and wonderings, because I felt that she would not have been able to listen or engage in a talk therapy process.
Instead, I asked her to feel the rhythm of Jake’s walk. She was able to do this, but not without continued agitation. I continued to walk next to her and continued to asked her to try to settle herself enough to follow Jake’s walk with her body. Slowly she was able to shift her emotional state enough to allow Jake’s rhythms to begin to shift her body tension from its inflamed state. I then asked her to trot. Her aids were abrupt so Jake moved off quickly and picked up a trot that was too fast for his gaits to cope with. He looked and felt rushed and uncomfortable; similarly almost agitated in the way my client expressed through her body. I didn’t tell her to slow him down, but instead asked her to pay attention to how he felt and how it made her feel. She understood that he was not in balance, was not finishing his gait properly and that he felt almost “unhappy.” I then asked her to slow him down until she got to a rhythm that felt “cadenced” or balanced and comfortable for him. At first she brought him to a gait that was too slow and without energy. I pointed out that at the slower speed he was also not balanced. At this point she was slowing her own body down and was focused on Jake. She understood that he was not moving forward enough and together we found a level of impulsion that allowed Jake to balance better, finish his gait to the best of his ability and so produce a feeling of harmony between my client and him.
At this point my client seemed to be joining Jake in his balanced, cadenced trot. She showed less agitation, and seemed to be able to breathe more deeply. Her hyperactive state was transformed by sharing Jake’s rhythms and in finding his balance she found her own.
In a subtler way each day, each ride, I think I borrow the natural rhythms of the horses I ride. Likely their rhythms affect my/our brain states, but I don’t think anyone has done any research on that yet. Riding can be a meditative process, a centering of self, an awakening even, if we let the horse move our bodies toward balance inside and out.
The Therapeutic Nature of Touch, and How A Horse Helps Us Feel Whole: I practice psychotherapy with children ages 5 to 18 with the help of Jake and Orion (my equine co-therapists). Once in awhile I work with adults as well. Recently I’ve been thinking about the role of touch as the predominant healing element in my work, and as one of the most meaningful experiences for anyone working with and around horses in general.
Other than the rare occasion, psychotherapists should not touch their clients. The therapy office needs to be a very safe place where individual boundaries are carefully respected. Yet, touch (i.e. a hug, a hand on a shoulder, or holding another’s hand) is one of the more powerful of healing tools. A great psychological theorist named Thomas Ogden wrote about the importance of touch or “contact comfort.” He explained that touch is one of the elements that helps us develop a sense of who we are in the world from infancy. It allows us to experience the boundary between ourselves and the outside world. It is the way we comfort ourselves, bring ourselves back to center, when we are overwhelmed with anxiety or other stressors. And yet, it is not advisable to bring touch into traditional therapy, because it can easily be experienced negatively.
However, in my work with Jake my clients can readily touch him, hold him, and so, find a sense of self through his self. One client I see struggles with a life threatening illness that has caused her to endure many painful medical procedures. She has suffered through so many horrible tests and treatments that she has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD – most often in the news related to soldiers returning from war). This means that she recoils from any contact to most of her body even if a friend is reaching out to her. All touch seems like it will be painful to her now or
brings up painful memories. Successful treatments for PTSD involve creating a neutral experience for the person in relation to toxic stimuli so that neutral or positive memories can help to balance out the noxious experience.
While my client has to suffer the emotional and physical torments of dealing with a life threatening illness combined with the normal stressors of everyday life she is not able to get any physical comfort from friends or relatives because those actions that would usually support someone, like a hug, are instead further damaging. For example, she had had so many needles in her arms in the past that almost anything touching this area is emotionally painful, and anything close to her torso brings up all the terror and pain she has endured from other procedures, and consequently is excruciating. However, through her work in therapy she has been able to place her body close to Jake. She ran her arms down his back, let her side lean against him, and allowed her fingers to sink into his thick winter coat. As Jake stood still, other than the clear expression of enjoyment and relaxation he showed in response to her gentle touching, she was able to experience a positive memory, feel the warmth of his body and be held by contacting his gentle presence. With many more experiences like this with Jake she might not recoil as much the next time a friend wants to give her hug in support, but be able to find herself, lean in a bit, share her struggles if even a little, through this human expression of tenderness.
My experience with this client made me realize how those of us who get to work with horses everyday are rewarded with this often unnoticed gift from our horses: the willing acceptance of our hugs.