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Crossing the Bridge from Horses to Humans

Our interactions with our horses can teach us important things about how we might better interact with humans.

While there a plenty of people who abuse animals in the world, and sadly we see and hear media stories about them every day, most of what I witness at my farm and with friends is that people bring their most compassionate, thoughtful and loving selves to their relationships with their animals. This is what I experience repeatedly in my psychotherapy practice. Children and adolescents who are impulsive somehow contain their impulsivity around the horses; those who are tortured by self defeating thoughts often let the horse “love” them, or accept them for their perfections and imperfections; others tortured by anxiety find a way to work with and ride the therapy horse despite their exhausting anxiety. The key to Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, or perhaps to a satisfying relational life for each of us, is to find a way to bring the compassionate self we find with our horses to our interactions with the people in our lives.

For example, one of the young women I work with finds it very difficult to “see” what she does in human relationships that push people away. Her desire is to be loved by those who care for her, but her behavior makes it difficult for others to communicate with her in a way that allows them to show their love to her directly. It is difficult for her to change the quality of her relationships because she has little self-awareness about how her verbal and non-verbal language constantly conveys the agitation, discomfort and aggression which pushes people away. Even people with whom she has had no direct communication tend to express defensive and aggressive behavior around her. Worse, because all of this is very confusing to her, she blames others for the conflict when people are negatively reactive to her.

Without the help which the therapeutic horse gives to ground her it would be nearly impossible for her to look inward at the parts of herself that she has to “own” in order to change the nature of her relationships.

However, when this young woman is around the dogs and horses at the barn her verbal and non-verbal language with them is completely different. She will come to the barn with a loud and impulsive presentation, but as soon as she is in the presence of a horse or a dog her energy relaxes and shifts enough to change the nature of her interactions with the horses and humans around her. She lowers the volume of her voice, slows her body, and looks at me when I’m speaking with her. When she rides, her gestures become refined and precise to the level of her riding. The more time she spends with the horses the more “grounded” she seems to become. And once she is grounded, it is possible to work psychotherapeutically with her in a way that I can confront some of her very painful relational experiences.

Part of what is painful in her therapeutic process is that she has to accept her role in the parts of her relationships that go wrong. This creates deep feelings of shame in her. Without the help which the therapeutic horse gives to ground her it would be nearly impossible for her to look inward at the parts of herself that she has to “own” in order to change the nature of her relationships. If I were to confront her when she was not feeling close and supported by the horse, it is likely she would escalate, lose control of her reactions and possibly become violent. Instead, a sense of humbleness peeks through for a moment and I can reach her there, and she is able to say that, yes, she gets how others might react defensively with her because of her actions.

That it is not just the fault of the other. Once she “sees” her part, that part she has control of, it is possible to show her how she is different around animals and very capable of bringing that self to her relationships with humans. This is the most stubborn aspect of the therapy for most clients—the creation of a bridge from the self which they experience in therapy with the horse to the self that can be brought to human relationships.

Of course when I experience the disappointments of human relationships I have the same trouble. It’s not easy to find that bridge. Or to use it. But that bridge is imperative for those of us fortunate enough to be led to it by a horse.

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