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How Horses Can Help Change Our Self-Perceptions

The most common way we organize our thoughts and experiences is through language. Our perceptions of ourselves both influence and are influenced by the internal stories we develop in reaction to events in our history. When a negative sense of self is fundamental to our narratives the consequences can be painful, if not tragic.

Several psychotherapeutic practices use various techniques to help depressed clients develop a more complete perspective of themselves and the world with a goal of guiding those clients in developing narratives that allow empathy for themselves. This process is difficult because the perceptions we have of ourselves are often antagonistic and particularly stubborn. Without the help of a therapy horse or pony I’m not sure I could ever help to change this sort of self-abusive thinking. However, when a client engages with a horse, their ability to shift perspectives, and retell a new, more positively threaded story about themselves, is greatly enhanced.

A high school student came to Bear Spot Farm with a history of cutting, food restriction and suicidal thoughts. For the purposes of this blog his name will be “Richard”. He was an extremely successful student, and most of his sense of self was derived from that role in his school. However, as the stress of high school increased, and the need to get an A on any quiz, test or course increased, the related anxiety made it difficult for him to concentrate and his grades were affected. The more he cared about doing well in school, the more anxiety he suffered and the less he could concentrate. Consequently, his grades spiraled downwards as his anxiety and depression soared. He began to think he was “stupid” and that all the people in the school would think he was “stupid” and “defective.” Richard’s self-hatred increased along with his anxiety until he could not bear the weight of his failures. Ultimately Richard had to be hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Once he left the hospital he began therapy at Bear Spot.

The first time Richard had ever met a horse was during his first therapy session at Bear Spot. He was surprised at how big they were, but he did not seem afraid. We began our time together, after the initial intake interview, walking to the therapy horse (Jake) and bringing him in from the paddock. I showed him how to groom a horse, put on the saddle and bridle and then the three of us walked out to the arena together. The experience took him away from his usual daily spin to say the least, and for the first time in a long time he was thinking about something other than his failings. He even smiled during the hour.

When Richard got on Jake his first reaction was to express the joy of sitting up so high off the ground. The first time I led Jake forward Richard smiled again and even laughed with the odd but exhilarating feeling that first time we move with the motion of the horse. Richard was remarkably sensitive to Jake’s emotions and I realized that beyond academic brilliance Richard seemed particularly sensitive to the emotions of others (though blind to this ability). However, despite his glee about riding, and sensitivity to Jake, his usual self-deprecating narratives soon returned.

One of the most common stories that depressed people tell themselves is that they are not worthy enough to demand what they want. This means that if they are in a situation where it is necessary to communicate what they need or want, or even share thoughts about a task that would be helpful to everyone involved, they often keep these thoughts to themselves. Instead of taking positive action their energy is stuck inward and recycled negatively. They engage in an escalation of self-destructive thoughts so that most of their gifts stay hidden from them and those around them.

For example, Richard tried to guide Jake in a small circle at the walk, but because he was just beginning to learn how to communicate to a horse he was unable to make Jake move. He tried a few times with the help of my guidance, but the same thing happened. Jake stood still or moved closer to me. Soon Richard’s thoughts became negative. He believed that Jake didn’t like him, and that Jake didn’t want to have him on his back. I told Richard that Jake definitely was not listening to him, but that it was because either Jake was confused or Jake didn’t think he needed to listen to Richard. I told him that he needed to give Jake clearer aids (to communicate with him better) and showed him how to do that. This took some convincing because a depressive thought process has an uncanny way of creating self-defeating behaviors that serve only to prove to the sufferer that he or she was indeed correct. Even though Richard thought he was communicating clearly he wasn’t.

Jake’s behavior seemed to prove to Richard that his narrative was right—that he wasn’t worth listening to, and, indeed, wasn’t likable. But Jake’s reality was different. Richard projected his disparaging thoughts onto Jake and Jake responded accordingly. I’m sure the readers can picture the difference in riders (even beginners) when they try to give an aid that they believe the horse will listen to versus the rider who gives an aid believing he will be ignored.

In this instance, I pushed Richard to try giving the aids with more energy and clarity. Once he did this Jake listened and the cycle of depression—(negative thoughts of self, behavior fueled by negative thinking, feelings of worthlessness—and lack of motivation that spins in a downward cycle)—all this was interrupted for a brief moment. Jake did what Richard wanted.

The more Richard was able to “speak” clearly the more Jake listened to him. Even if he tried to create a negative story about it (like Jake was just listening to my—the therapist’s—cues and not his) it was very hard for him (especially with my insistence) to disregard Jake’s clear and immediate response to him. Richard had to accept that he asked Jake a question and that Jake had heard him.

I then asked Richard to reward Jake for listening well to him with a pat on his neck. I pointed out that it is important to take note and understand when we do something that works so we can reward the horse. If we ignore the moments when things go well between ourselves and the horse, then we are not only neglect ourselves, but also the horse. Similarly, in human interactions, when people experience someone who recognizes what they are doing well, they usually respond with gratitude. This recognition moves one off the depressive cycle and towards relationships defined by listening, acknowledgment and feelings of gratitude.

For those who wonder how Richard became caught in a painful depressive cycle, I assure you, we explored a lot of history and learned a bit about the experiences that had brought him to that tortured internal story.

Depression is a combination of a biological vulnerability and difficult external events. Of course the foundation of his suffering was not solely academic stress. As we looked at Richard’s painful history we explored how it continued to live in him in the present through the narrative he told about himself. Jake helped him take a leap off of that Mobius strip. Hopefully, he will continue to use the positive experiences that have sprung from his relationship with Jake to quiet that relentless internal monologue of continuous toxic criticism.

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