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 thr
ough 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.