Scanning the horizon!
I have been implementing some of the ground exercises I learned at http://www.naturallifemanship.com this summer with some really exciting results in our EAP program. I won’t talk about actual sessions but instead will talk from the horse side of things (as an equine specialist) and why I am so excited about this way of facilitating trauma-focused equine-assisted therapy sessions.
I have owned an 18 yr Arabian mare since birth. Her dam was a rescue that I stumbled across in terrible shape. The poor mare was heavily pregnant but skinny, wormy and caked with manure. She was confined to a filthy stall, with no food or water. I brought her home and nursed her back to health just in the nick of time. The foal was born healthy and full term 2 months later.
I was able to watch this foal being born which has stayed in my mind as a very special memory. Considering I was having babies myself right about this time I also marveled at how silent, peaceful and fast this birth was! I know as a prey animal that is what they must do in order to help protect themselves from predators but none the less it was a wonderful visual for me as I labored. Maybe that was the beginning of horses giving me a visual representation of a particular character trait to use in my own life.
Fast forward to my life now 18 years later. My husband and I are in the ‘downsizing’ phase of life as we are becoming closer to an empty nest. I have always had horses at home and in my backyard but as part of the plan of moving into a smaller place that requires less maintenance I needed to reduce the number of horses at home. I always imagined Abbey to be with me her whole life. It is not often a person, or horse, has that opportunity and I thought I could give this to her. But another opportunity came up.
As I became more involved in EAP I saw the qualities in her as an excellent therapy horse. She is sensitive, smart, pretty :), an easy keeper with no health problems and is very. very people oriented. I think most Arabs are very people smart. I had gone to the Natural Lifemanship clinic and loved what they were doing. Our program had minis and a donkey which fills a need but the minis, in particular, pose a bit of a problem when trying to ‘connect’ with them – especially for someone who is just learning how to do that with a horse, due to their size. Our body position in relation to the horse is important and with the minis, we have a much smaller area to work. When someone is learning, the subtle body language shifts of just millimeters difference may be harder for a person to pick up. Abbey was saddle trained by a good friend when she young using natural horsemanship techniques. That in itself was amazing to watch because ‘drill’, dominance and repetition was not part of her experience. She caught on quickly because of her level of trust and retained what she learned even though my friend was only able to come by sporadically. I can honestly say this horse has only seen the good side of people. That also is a rare thing for most horses.
Abbey was very instrumental in my healing from PTSD several years ago when she was a green broke horse. I learned how to be brave in spite of my fears. I learned how to ‘feel’ the tension in my body and release it in order to calm her in the face of new challenges. What I was learning in therapy played out on horseback and I learned how to overcome my anxiety and fears in my life due to a trauma history.
The equine program that I work for was interested in her as a therapy horse and she was integrated into their herd and practice. We have begun using her in individual sessions and it is so very exciting to see this at work with actual clients. All our work in EAP is on the ground at this point even though Natural Lifemanship has a wonderful riding portion that helps with self-regulation. That is what Abbey was teaching me years ago I just never had a name for it! Abbey, as most horses do, has a desire to connect with a person but the person needs to give her the correct body language and cues. She is sensitive and expressive so it is easy to read her body language which becomes helpful for the clients in recognizing the somatic symptoms of anxiety and stress as well as comfort, releasing tension and calmness. Abbey will connect (which is similar to what some people know as ‘joining up’ but without using a round pen or driving the horse forward to the extent it is done in actual joining up) easily since she is a very people oriented horse and like I mentioned above has only seen the good in people. In the horse herd, she is a follower and by nature not dominant. She is gentle and has a very maternal side to her which comes out when with timid, young or fearful people. She also does NOT like a heavy hand and will react strongly (although not aggressively) to someone who is too ‘in your face’.
Clients relate to that desire to find a ‘safe place’ they see in the horse to relieve their anxiety. The experience of having a horse connect with you can be a major milestone in a person’s healing. It touches on that need in us to find safety and comfort in a connection with others. The basis of the Natural Lifemanship technique is to use the principles of a healthy relationship to help a client do that with a horse that can then be applied toward human relationships. Attachment, autonomy, boundaries, respect, focus, direction, intention, purpose, safety, control, anger, detachment all come into play and make for a non-threatening way to talk about and process how a person goes about having healthy, balanced relationships in their life. The horse brings to it their own immediate, in the moment, feedback which the client obviously sees is a result of their approach to the relationship. As they change their approach the horse changes its reaction. It is a beautiful thing to watch. Although there is a touch more ‘horsemanship’ in this model than EAGALA it is still very much focused on the client’s needs. It just so happens that good relationship building principles that work in people relationships also work with horses. I think that is another gem in this model– the horse’s needs are taken into consideration. Anyone who knows a bit about equine-assisted work knows there is a spectrum of models ranging from using the horse as a ‘spiritual guide’ (very horse directed ex. EPONA) to the horse as a means for people to project meaning on to the horse’s behavior (very people directed ex. EAGALA). I like that Natural Lifemanship has found what looks to me at this point the best of both worlds in the middle.
Now that I have gotten to see Abbey in actual sessions it feels very healing to know that she can have a life-changing impact on so many people. This brings so many things full circle in my life that is so much better than just having her in my own backyard. I love learning more and more about this work and am energized as I see people benefiting from it in significant ways.
Update: I remain very interested in horse-human interactions and how horses are used in equine assisted therapies but now work in a pediatric hospital as a mental health tech and am an equine artist. I continue to own and ride horses and blog here and at A Multi-Colored Life . I specialize in horse paintings and pet portraits. Please consider referring me to anyone you know who may have an interest in this kind of art. My website is at http://www.horseartonline.com and also sell my art and horse and dog themed gifts at https://www.etsy.com/shop/FreeReinArtStudio Thank you!