Before I begin work with a child, adolescent or adult I have a “consult” meeting to describe what this odd therapy is like. I give the child and his or her family an opportunity to ask any questions they have, get a tour of the farm and meet the therapy horses. Usually these meetings are about a half an hour to 45 minutes long. After the consult session I ask the prospective client and their family decide if the therapy is a good match after they leave. I don’t want people to feel pressure to make a decision while they are at the farm. It is very important that both the child and family make and active choice to work with the horses and me. Otherwise, the therapy is not likely to succeed. Usually these meetings are not very intense. They are descriptive of the program, and there is some exploring of the child’s history, but not much. I wait until we have formally begun the therapy to dig into their stories in depth. However, recently I had a surprisingly profound experience during one of these meetings.
A young boy (Bobby) with a very complicated and difficult history came with his mother to see if he might benefit from Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. (Bobby was adopted when he was five after many years in our foster care system and suffered PTSD.) When I came out to greet him there was a lot of commotion. P0UPS was delivering packages and the barn dogs were engaged in their usual incessant clamorous barking at the driver (because of course he was certainly going to do something terrible to their home even though this truck has visited daily during the dogs’ entire lives.) Bobby was still in his car and understandably didn’t want to come out. After the UPS truck left his mother tried to coax him from the car, but he was reluctant. He said he just wanted to go home.
At this point I was thinking that this was likely not the right therapeutic milieu for this child. He seemed afraid of the dogs and the horses and didn’t feel an equal pull towards the animals in a way that would help overcome his fear of them. I’ve been doing this work for a long time and I can usually predict when EFP is the wrong match. This time I was wrong.
I decided to put the dogs in my car so that they were safely away from Bobby. Bobby came out of his car and stayed close to his mother’s side. We walked around the barn meeting various horses, but Bobby said, “I’m ready to go home.” Even when I introduced him to Willy, the therapy pony, he didn’t seem inspired. I was ready to tell them that this probably wasn’t a good match, but for some reason I decided to invite him to come into the paddock with Willy instead of meeting him over the fence. To my surprise he readily agreed. His mother came into the paddock with him. Bobby felt better inside the paddock. His face looked more relaxed, he smiled and he said he liked it better inside the paddock. Willy is on a diet so when he’s eating nothing much can distract him. Consequently, he ate purposefully and without distraction. (Plus, he’s a pony so even when he’s not on a diet nothing much distracts him from a pile of hay.) The sound of Willie chewing, his sweet presence, combined with a beautiful fall day seemed to have a calming effect on Bobby. He sat down next to Willy and his big pile of hay. His mother sat down next to Bobby, and then he moved to his mother’s lap. I would usually tell them not to sit down on the ground next to a horse in a paddock, because it is dangerous. If a horse spooks the human is in a vulnerable position. And I can honestly say that while I’ve sat in a chair in the paddock of a horse grazing, I have never sat down on the ground. But this day I decided to sit down on the hay speckled ground with this family and Willy.
We listened as Willy ate his hay. My own breathing slowed down, and for a moment I stopped thinking of what the next step would be with Bobby. I decided not to probe him and his mother with my usual annoying therapeutically guided questions that help me try to understand the history of a child and a family. All we could hear was Willie chewing, moving on the ground slowly, and some of the barn sounds from a distance. Gradually Bobby began to talk. Then, he said he thought that maybe horses could be helpful. He said he liked horses. He explained that there was a giant in him. When I asked about the giant he said little, but conveyed that there was a terrifying entity he was very reluctant to talk about. His mother tried to help him explain, but he couldn’t say much more than that. But he said, with a quiet but hopeful tone, “I think the horses could help with the giant.”