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.