One of the ways horses teach us about ourselves is that they share our reactions. For example, someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder might have a startle reaction to a loud noise the way a horse might react to a similar sound. Both horses and humans learn through repetition that a noise might just be someone closing a door loudly, hammering a nail, or a book falling to the ground. In addition to our internal emotional world, horses can also teach us about things we are blind to in our relational world.
A couple of weeks ago an adolescent psychotherapy client (I’ll use the name Mary to protect her identity) was dropped off at her session by her mother. This teen has had a history of impulsive, sometimes aggressive, behavior (although it had been a long time since she had shown any of it). When they arrived her mother explained that something had happened that day that had upset her daughter, and Mary had frightened her mother with angry words, and what seemed like threatening body language. Mary had used her body to express her anger, though she didn’t do anything directly aggressive, and it had scared her mother to a point where she almost thought of calling for help. In contrast, Mary didn’t understand why her mother was so worried, and thought her mother was overreacting.
However, one of Mary’s wonderful qualities is that she has a larger than life presence, and expresses a vitality that is infectious. This energy can also work to her disadvantage if she is angry, because her movements can easily be seen as threatening. Mary doesn’t quite understand the power of her body language, and/or she enjoys that power and doesn’t always want to take responsibility for it.
This is where my therapeutic horse, Jake, was immeasurably helpful. During the session Mary seemed a bit over stimulated, but still in control of her actions. Mary rode Jake, and I walked next to them as usual. She engaged in a discussion about her week, and her day similar to our talks in most sessions. When I pressed her to recognize how she might have scared her mother she said she didn’t think she did anything out of the ordinary. I asked her why she thought her mother had felt frightened and she said she had no reason to. After we talked she had a short lesson, and then dismounted. After each lesson she picks out Jake’s feet and gives him his well-deserved sugar cubes. However, this day she got the sugar cubes and came up to Jake too fast. Jake stepped backwards from her in fear even though he is not a particularly spooky horse, and has never (over many years knowing Mary) ever spooked around her. In fact, Jake is very attached to Mary and is usually affectionate with her.
I took this moment as another gift from Jake, and asked Mary to tell me what she thought happened. She visibly felt badly, and said she spooked him unintentionally. I noted that she was right, but that there was something about her body language, her quick motion towards him, that made him afraid that she might do something painful to him even though it was unintentional. She couldn’t argue because Jake had no history of this behavior with her, and his reaction was immediate, uncomplicated and honest. I quickly pointed out that this might have been similar to what happened with her mother that day. When I said this I tried to use a lighter tone, and added humor to the comment so that she would be able to take in the feedback rather than continue to feel defensive. She laughed with me and said, “Okay…..I get it….now let’s move on…” in her own wonderful humor.
Jake took his sugar readily and we all walked together into the aisle.