Our horses can provide us with important insights about ourselves if we listen to them.
In my work with horses and ponies as my co-therapists there are profound moments when my equine co-therapists offer a gift that can help my clients jump from and change a repetitive destructive pattern. Likewise, I think our horses offer all of us big and small gifts that help us move forward in our lives if we choose to pay attention.
Many of the teenagers I work with suffer from depression. They always have good reasons to feel as miserable as they do. Their lives are filled with painful experiences with family and/or friends that they feel they have no control over. Sadly, the sense of helplessness in depression can further the depression. As the depression deepens the person suffering often develops negative thoughts, feels less motivation and energy, and struggles with a shrinking ability to find solutions and take positive action. These emotional and physical reactions infect their behavior and cause friends and family to relate to them differently, often negatively, further supporting their feelings of hopelessness. That is, depressive thoughts and behavior often supports and deepens, even “proves” the correctness of the depressive thought process. Appetite, sleep, concentration, sense of self-worth, desire, motivation and basic self-care can all be severely affected.
Over the years I have worked with many clients who have found it hard to get out of bed in the morning and nearly impossible to get to school. Others find their way to school somehow, but can’t concentrate when they get there. Research has shown that a combination of medication and psychotherapy is the best way to treat depression. All clinicians working with people suffering from depression look for ways to help the person “jump” off the seemingly endless loop of depression, corresponding behavior and reaction of friends and family.
In my work as an Equine Facilitated Psychotherapist my co-therapist, Jake (my equine partner), offers gifts that can and have helped many depressed clients jump off that circle of depression, as well as other painful and destructive emotional and psychological processes. During one session I was working with a young woman who was severely depressed. She loves horses and riding, but was feeling so depressed that she expressed not wanting to ride that day (talking about how she was feeling and what she was thinking was out of the question). I gently (or not so gently) nudged her to ride Jake. I told her we didn’t need to talk about anything, but that I wanted her to at least walk around on Jake. I thought that she should move her body, allow Jake to move her body, and see if even a little physical excursion would begin to move her off of the downward spiral she was stuck in.
She agreed to get on Jake and as he walked I could see her energy change. I asked her to move Jake forward into trot, and she was able to access enough energy to do so. However, Jake expressed an unwillingness to access his own energy. He didn’t want to move forward in the trot. Here he offered a powerful gift to my client. She had to ask him to find some energy in order for him to find his balance. She had to find her own impulsion and balance to help him find his. As she accessed her energy Jake responded and found his. As he responded and moved forward he found his balance too. The more he found balance the more she felt like she could communicate with Jake and the more hopeful she became. When we ended the session both Jake and my client seemed different. She expressed feeling a lot better, and in that moment was able to begin to add some positive thoughts to her negative thoughts. She began to find some balance. She was able to “jump” off the depressive circle. And, she had the memory of that moment of change to go back to if the negative thoughts began to usurp her sense of self again that day or in the future.
She’ll have many moments in her future when she feels stuck in a depressive cycle, but she now has a memory, shared in body and mind, of what it feels like to move from that sense of powerlessness, and what it takes to jump out of the seemingly hopeless downward spiral of depression.
Similarly, in those moments when we move forward with our horses from a difficult moment in their training we might look at that stuck place, and the moment out, as a gift. Sometimes, if we pay enough attention, it we might learn something about ourselves.