It is often difficult for people (clinicians, parents, equestrians, etc.) to picture the way I use horses and ponies as co-therapists to help children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. Here is one example of how riding, when guided by a therapeutic process, can help children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
While I work with people suffering from a wide range of psychological issues, I picked ADHD as an example because it is very common and most of us have an idea, whether firsthand or through someone close, how difficult the disorder makes navigating the day to day.
Recently, I began work with “Angie”, a 10-year-old child struggling with ADHD. ADHD is diagnosed when a child or adolescent has trouble with attention (focusing on details, sustaining attention, listening and organization) and impulsive behavior (difficulty sitting still and waiting, or acts as if “driven by a motor”).
Angie is a lovely, thoughtful girl who adores animals. She does well in school, is respectful and very likeable, but at times needs the guidance of her teachers to help her stay on task. At home she is a loving big sister and daughter, but her ADHD sometimes creates painful conflicts in her relationships.
Angie’s mother explained to me that it is often difficult for Angie to listen to directions at home and school. When she is asked to do something she rarely does it in response to the first request. When her parents get to the third and fourth request their voices start to raise, tension builds and conflict often arises before Angie focuses on what she’s been asked to do. This “negative” behavior is often marked by outbursts and impulsivity (like throwing things at a sibling) and it is difficult to prevent.
Angie said that one of her goals for therapy was to learn how to listen better. She doesn’t like the conflict with her parents anymore than they do. When Angie got on our therapeutic pony, Willie, she was confident and clear in the way she communicated with him. Willie is a pony with a sense of humor and often doesn’t listen to his riders very well. He tried not to listen to Angie, but Angie didn’t give him that option. In fact, after a short discussion with Angie, Willy listened extremely well to her aids (Angie has some riding experience). Willie doesn’t always listen well to his riders, but he seemed very attentive to her. We discussed the idea that in this relationship she was more like the mother or father and she was getting her relatively inattentive “child” to listen. In this way, Angie could identify with her parents and understand the feelings associated with being listened to or not when trying to communicate with someone.
We decided it might benefit Angie if when her parents are trying to get her to focus on something they simply call out the name “Willie” if their first request goes unnoticed. We thought this might be helpful in waking her up from the “trance” she might be in, and help her hear what her parents were asking her to do before conflict arises. Angie thought this was a good idea, and indeed, it has worked incredibly well for her.
Angie’s mom, however, explained that it didn’t work so well when Angie was fully engaged in more negative emotional behavior, such as fighting with her sister. This made sense to me since impulsive negative behavior can be a stubborn physical experience and very difficult to transition out of. To help with this understanding of how to transition from one body state to the next, the next session we focused on teaching Angie trot/halt transitions. We repeated the transitions many times and Angie learned to trot and halt Willie beautifully.
We then talked about how difficult it is to “stop”, or halt, when we are moving in a direction with energy. We compared trotting to being immersed in an intense emotion and stopping/halting as coming out of that immersion or trance. We also discussed how particularly difficult it is to suppress our feelings when we are experiencing negative emotions. Through the trot/halt transitions on Willy, Angie got the feeling in her body of being in that trance of motion and stopping repeatedly.
Next, we talked about how she can use this feeling of stopping/halting while engaged in a negative trance, like fighting with her sister. To help her with her transitions out of that negative trance I suggested to her parents to say the word “halt” instead of “stop.” “Halt” sounds odd coming from her parents so it serves the purpose of awakening her and even finding humor in the ordeal.
Additionally, I made her a little baggie filled with a lock of Willie’s mane, some shavings and some hay. The smells and textures in the bag will help remind her of what she learned during her session, and Willy himself, and will further assist her to control the impulsivity by releasing her from the negative trance.
Angie will be able to use these strategies at school when needed, and soon, as these skills become internalized, she won’t be reliant on a parent or teacher to help her control her behavior. She will instead trot on, again and again, in forward positive strides as she so chooses.