One of our dedicated Natural Lifemanship practitioners, Sarah Willeman Doran, recently authored a chapter in the new book, Integrating Horses into Healing that details her transformational healing journey with horses and specifically, her transformational experience with Natural Lifemanship.
As a Dually Advanced Certified NL Practitioner and Equine Professional (Advanced NLC-P,EP), Sarah embodies our mission at Natural Lifemanship and we’re excited to share a brief recap of what she shared about NL. To read the full chapter and other life changing stories of healing and transformation, get the book here: Integrating Horses into Healing.
A Fallen Star
Sarah’s relationship with horses begins in the competitive world of showjumping. At a young age, she was competing at the Grand Prix level and was seen as a rising star in the sport. She knew how to get the most out of her horses and saw great success early on. There was no telling how far she could go.
But behind the scenes, Sarah had faced abuse from one of her coaches. She’d suppressed her trauma to continue to perform in the sport she loved, and didn’t realize until far later how damaging this was.
Sarah’s meteoric rise in Grand Prix jumping would come to an abrupt end following traumatic riding injuries. She would eventually recover to win an intercollegiate individual national championship riding for Stanford University, but would never be able to return to a Grand Prix jumping level, and stepped out of competitive horse jumping.
But her journey with horses would eventually take a new path. .
A New Beginning
Following early retirement from competitive riding, Sarah shifted her focus to developing young horses. At the same time, she was also walking the path of personal growth and deep healing.
When Sarah came across the Fundamentals of NL and the Fundamentals Practicum, her relationship with trauma was changed forever. She found a new understanding of how trauma affects the nervous system, opening the way to greater self-compassion and healing.
“The NL model gave me a chance to work through nervous-system activation ‘in the field,’ which can create a more embodied and deeper experience than an office setting provides,” Sarah writes.
Finding early success with the Fundamentals of NL, Sarah went on to do a series of therapy intensives with her Natural Lifemanship therapist, each lasting three to four days.
“We processed a series of traumatic memories, and I truly felt my sense of them shift. It’s not that I’ve forgotten any of what happened, but now I can think of those things without feeling a jolt through my body,” Sarah explains.
Sarah’s third intensive session was her breakthrough moment, which she described as “coming out of a fog.” Finally able to process her trauma and have a deeper connection with her inner being, she gained the strength and wisdom to make positive changes in her life.
The Natural Lifemanship Institute offers Transformative Training
As Sarah continued to take NL courses for her own growth and her work with clients, she explained, “For me, at the trainings, some of my most powerful growth experiences were not even about the work with the horses. Rather, certain interpersonal moments were what the field of psychology calls ‘corrective emotional experiences.’ These were moments when I felt truly seen and cared for, when trainers recognized my needs and practiced one of the core NL principles: making sure not to take away the other’s sense of choice.” The following story is about one of these moments at an Intensive Practicum.
Sarah describes working with the paint horse she’d been partnered with: “It felt satisfying, as we practiced various ways of moving together in the pen and went on to haltering with connection. I later learned the owner said he was head shy, but at the time, our connection had evolved enough that he would move his nose toward the halter and stay relaxed as I brought it over his ears.” It was in one of these moments of quiet connection that a sudden burst of wind and rain swept through the arena. In a split second the horse lost awareness of Sarah, and she narrowly dodged him as he swung his head and took off.
When Sarah returned to the horse, he was agitated, running from one side of the pen to the other, unable to calm down. When she asked for his attention, he would buck and kick at her, at close range.
“I was still focused enough on performing well and pleasing others that I persisted in the pen to a point of complete exhaustion, trying in vain to raise my energy and bring the horse’s attention back to me, to help him connect and calm down,” Sarah said. “By the time I told one of the trainers that I was too exhausted to make any progress, I was in a state of nervous-system freeze that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It felt familiar. . . I was afraid to tell anyone the extent of what I was feeling, and as usual, I looked basically fine from the outside. I had learned, through many years, how to keep going through these things and not reveal what was happening inside.”
Sarah was worried about going back to training the next day. With her nervous system in overwhelm, she didn’t feel she’d be able to work with the horse safely if he was still dysregulated and aggressive.
“When I arrived, I asked one of the trainers if we could speak privately. When westepped aside from the group, I couldn’t stop the tears, and I felt ashamed. I told her what I was going through, and also that I was worried about letting the trainers down. What happened next felt like a miracle to me: she listened with total kindness and without judgment; she expressed the trainers’ full confidence in my abilities with the horses; and she said I did not have to work with the horse if it didn’t feel safe.”
Sarah tried to work with the horse again, but he was still in an agitated state, and Sarah was still triggered. She was used to being the tough horsewoman from her competitive days and tried to persist at first, but was quickly faced with a fork in the road. Should she continue to hang on to this persistence that made her successful in the competitive world, or was it time to let go and do what was best for her well-being?
Sarah, with the help of her NL trainer, decided to let go.
“This was an empowering turning point. At the time, in my evolution as a person, what I needed most was to choose to put my well-being first. Not only to choose that but to be supported in that choice. To see and feel that my safety mattered, that taking care of myself was not a cause for rejection or abuse of any kind, but rather led to an experience of safety,” Sarah said. “This is what the NL trainer provided that day. She sat with me beside the pen, supporting me in my decision. . . this was a transformative experience of expressing a boundary around my safety and well-being and having it honored.”
Sarah learned more than just how to let go that day. As someone who’d experienced multiple forms of trauma in her youth, it had been difficult for her to express and uphold boundaries. She had been in relationships where boundaries were violated, and hadn’t known how to break the cycle.
At that moment, she was able to make a new choice.
“As we heal, the choices in relationships become much clearer. If we express our boundaries clearly and repeatedly and someone still can’t honor them, the relationship isn’t healthy,” Sarah explains. “At that point, we can either attempt stronger ways to make our request, or we can choose to end the relationship.” That day, Sarah chose to end the relationship knowing that it wasn’t healthy to push herself to work with this horse.
She called this moment a fundamental shift and a vital one for her own healing journey.
The ripple effect of healing
“Learning and practicing Natural Lifemanship changes the way we live. When we improve our relationships, the healing effect ripples outward through those around us. The more we heal ourselves, the more powerfully we can help clients,” she said.
Like many healing journeys, Sarah’s has been long and painful. However, it has also been deeply rewarding. With the transformation she experienced through her Natural Lifemanship training and therapy, Sarah has seen long-term tangible benefits in her life.
With a healthier and renewed nervous system, her baseline state has transformed from stress into wellness. She no longer lives with chronic pain, she feels at home in her own body, and she’s able to build the kind of healthy, connected relationships that bring the greatest sense of meaning in her life.
Sarah is now a certified life coach and a mindfulness meditation teacher. She is building her own Natural Lifemanship practice in Colorado, with plans to open a retreat center in the mountains.
Sarah is also an author, and you are sure to enjoy her writing. Here are some articles that focus on NL specifically:
Natural Lifemanship at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, Part 1
Natural Lifemanship at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, Part 2
The Healing Power of Connection
Building Connected Relationships
Begin Your Own Healing Journey Today
We couldn’t be more grateful to Sarah for sharing her journey of transformation with Natural Lifemanship. The beginning of Sarah’s journey is like so many for our NL community – it all begins with the Fundamentals of Natural Lifemanship.
If you’re ready to learn the principles of Natural Lifemanship, join us for this life-changing training.
We are beyond thrilled to share an amazing new resource for the field edited by Cheryl Meola. We had the honor of contributing severals chapters to this book. When she approached us about contributing chapters, Cheryl said she wanted this book to be a resource for people newly entering the field of equine-assisted services. We were asked to write in a “newbie”-friendly way. That said, we believe this book is equally valuable for seasoned professionals and for those new to the field.
Here is a list of the book’s chapters with the titles we contributed in blue:
- Natural therapeutic aspects of horses by Cheryl Meola and Malaika King Albrecht
- The evolution of equine-assisted services (EAS): horses are good for people by Lorrie Renker, Octavia Brown and Pebbles Turbeville
- Horse Speak and Partnership by Sharon Wilsie and Laura Wilsie
- Relational Equine-Partnered Counseling (REPC) by Hallie Sheade
- An in-depth approach to relational work with equines: Natural Lifemanship by Bettina Shultz-Jobe and Kathleen Choe
- Breathing into relationships: the HERD Institute approach to equine-facilitated psychotherapy by Veronica Lac
- Side-to-side astride: the benefits and challenges of equine mounted work in trauma processing by Susanne Haseman
- Blended therapy modalities in equine-assisted psychotherapy: integrating equine-engaged internal family systems (EE-IFS) and equine-connected eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EC-EMDR) by Jenn Pagone and Kathleen Choe
- Medical therapy (OT, PT, SLP) enhanced with hippotherapy by Joann Benjamin, Ruth Dismuke-Blakely and Karen Gardner
- The Equus Effect: a road to regulation through equine-assisted learning by Jane Strong, David Sonatore and Elizabeth E. Lloyd-Richardson
- Serving those who served…and still serve by Tara Mahoney
- Beyond mind and body: spiritual connections in equine-assisted services by Kathleen Choe and Laura McFarland
- Be the Horse’s Advocate by C. Mike Tomlinson
- Enhancing the horses voice: incorporating Horse Speak into psychotherapy by Susanne Haseman, Sharon Wilsie and Laura Wilsie
- Exploring socio-emotional and cognitive development in horses by Tim Jobe, Tanner Jobe and Rebecca J. Hubbard
- Not just horsing around: an equine professional’s guiding principles by Malaika King Albrecht
- The role of the equine professional in equine-assisted services by Tim Jobe, Tanner Jobe and Reccia Jobe
- Heart centered horsemanship: the horse trainer’s perspective in EAS by Stacey Carter
- A holistic perspective: My transformative journey through Natural Lifemanship by Sarah Willeman Doran
- Are we there yet? The ongoing journey of healing for the healers by Kathleen Choe
- Interventions and strategies toward mental health and wellbeing for professionals by Aviva Vincent and Joanna Robson
- Starting or restarting an equine-assisted services organization: Don’t put the cart before the horse by Nancy Paschall
- The key to a successful non-profit board by John Matthew Kundtz
- How do you know it works: Evaluating equine-assisted service programs by Maureen MacNamara
- Bridging research and practice in equine-assisted services by Kimberly I. Tumlin
- Conclusions and future directions
Each chapter in this book is contributed by an expert in the field and provides an overview of the topic plus concrete examples and helpful resources. We are so proud to have been a part of this effort and cannot recommend this book strongly enough!
Psst…when you order the book through the links in this article, we earn a small affiliate commission. This transparency is important to us, but since we contributed to the book, you know we recommend it whole-heartedly!
We are so pleased to announce that our Natural Lifemanship team has been published again!
A lovely new resource is now available for a variety of practitioners – Nourished: Horses, Animals & Nature in Counselling, Psychotherapy & Mental Health, edited by Meg Kirby, is out now!
Not only do we share our lives with nature and animals, they are an integral and influential part of our well-being. Within the pages of Nourished is wisdom collected from respected professionals across the globe (of whom we are honored to be a part!) on how we can intentionally incorporate the natural and animal world into mental health, wellness, and personal growth.
Working With Horses to Develop Secure Attachment
Natural Lifemanship’s CEO and co-founder Bettina Shultz-Jobe and I are thrilled to have contributed a chapter in Nourished titled “Working With Horses to Develop Secure Attachment”. In this chapter we offer theory as well as a case study discussing how attachment wounds can be brought into awareness, gently explored, and healed through authentic engagement with equines.
We ventured not only into the cognitive aspects of attachment, but the embodied ones as well – for much of our relational patterns are held in the body. As this NL community knows, being in relationship with horses is a unique opportunity to transform ways of being, even when deeply held in the unconscious body.
If you are a practitioner in the field of equine assisted services, this is a chapter, and a book, not to be missed!
Psst…when you order the book through the links in this article, we earn a small affiliate commission. This transparency is important to us, but since we contributed to the book, you know we recommend it whole-heartedly!
This is a letter Michael Remole, NL trainer, recently sent to his clients. We were touched. We related, and we felt more connected to our community. We hope you feel the same way. Thank you Michael for your thoughts, your kindness, and your dedication to genuine connection.
As an empath, a business owner, and a mental health professional, there are so many pieces of this COVID-19 plan that are quite difficult to fully address and properly articulate. In short, my heart is broken.
My heart breaks as I put on my mask and head out to greet your child. I try hard to smile under this mask and show the excitement with my eyes, yet it is not the same. I can feel the glances of “are you going to make my child wear a mask?” and “you believe this stuff?” and “it’s about time you meet in person again.” My heart breaks as our young clients try to make sense of why a “safe place”—a place where we promote authenticity and a metaphorical mask free zone now requires a mask to keep us safe. I cringe as I watch myself and our client fight our masks as they slide down our face, get into our eyes, and muffle our words. It’s not the same, and I battle wondering whether telehealth was better than this awkward clumsy in-person session. But I have to remind myself that connection is on a continuum and this IS connection, even if it feels awkward.
My heart breaks as I watch your child touch doorknobs and grab buckets or latches. I ask myself a million questions…did we wipe that down properly since the last client touched it? Did the client touch their face after? I pray that my clients don’t feel me holding my breath, but I know they do. My biggest fear is not me catching the virus, but what if a decision I made to open up to in-person sessions causes your family to be directly impacted by this virus. I ask myself a million times, “did I make the right decision?” We want to help people and I pray that this is somehow helping.
My heart is also very heavy for everyone given the way this virus is wreaking havoc on all areas of our lives—most importantly our mental health. I hear the hurt in your voices and I feel the fear about the current state of things, as well as the fear of the future when we talk. I know how desperately we all want answers and we want to fix this. As an empath, one of my greatest gifts is to feel what you are feeling. Right now, it is as if the volume to my empathy is blasting to a deafening volume. Daily I am faced with the question, do I shut it off, do I figure out some way to turn down the volume, or do I learn to live with the volume blaring? As I think about that, I know the pros and cons of each decision. I often find myself paralyzed by all of the various ways for me to move forward.
Over the last two months, I have shared with clients about ambiguous loss and how it impacts people. We’ve talked (I’ve even taught) on the idea that we are all grieving various losses and that each one of us has experienced loss on various levels. What I did not realize was that coming back to in-person sessions would be what made me see more of the ambiguous losses.
Lately, I’ve been working on the things I can do for myself personally that help me move toward a healthier version of myself. I returned to running during this time after one of Dr. Perry’s office hours with Dr. Brandt. She talked about rest, refuel & reflect. Something struck me that day and I have logged over 100 miles in just a few weeks. I have been running the same road every day, but varying the distances. This past Monday I decided to do one of my shortest runs and go a different route. Interestingly, it was insane how difficult it was. It felt as if I were running a marathon. My body did not have any problem with the mileage. My brain did because it was new; it wasn’t what I was used to and I did not have those normal benchmarks of how far I had run. This is similar to what’s been happening with COVID-19 for me. I’ve been on the same route (telehealth) for a while now. Even though it’s had its own challenges, it’s what I know. This week, we embarked on a new route by adding some in-person sessions. Mentally, it has thrown me for a loop.
During my runs, I’ve been listening to music and an older song from FUN came on my playlist, “put one foot in front of the other.” That has been on repeat in my head. So today, I am taking one foot and I am placing it in front of the other. I do not have the answers and I cannot fix this situation. As an agency, we will continue to strive to provide exceptional services, despite having to wear masks and concerns over germs. As an individual, I will work hard to identify those areas that are out of my control and what areas I can control. And together with my clients, we will navigate this new normal and work hard to ensure that the physical masks do not hinder what we both need—genuine connection.
By Kathleen Choe and Tanner Jobe
Recently, Tanner and I had an experience in an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy session where we had planned to do trauma processing with our client using Equine Connected Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EC-EMDR) which is essentially EMDR while mounted on a horse, where the movement of the horse provides Dual Attention Stimulus as well as relational connection for the client. The problem was, our equine therapy partner, Gretta, was having a great deal of trouble with connection that day. Prior to the start of the session, Tanner spent an hour in the pasture with her, asking her to connect, which she eventually did while at liberty, but when he asked her to halter with connection, she alternated between dissociating and submitting, or resisting by pulling her head away or walking off.
When the client arrived, I went to greet her at the cabin where we begin our sessions with a check in, leaving Tanner in the pasture with Gretta, assuming he would arrive at the round pen shortly with Gretta in tow. After half an hour of talking with the client about her transfers of learning from the previous session and what our therapeutic goals were for the current one, I noticed that Tanner and Gretta still had not appeared. I knew the client was eager to do trauma processing that day and had come prepared with a particular memory she had targeted to work on. I stepped out of the cabin and called to Tanner, asking him if he would be bringing Gretta soon (as in, now!). He called back that we would have to come to the pasture. I immediately felt both awkward and annoyed, awkward towards the client, who was ready to go with the mounted work we had planned on doing, and annoyed with Tanner for not just settling for an ear flick or eye ball’s worth of connection so that he could halter Gretta in good conscience and cooperate with our agenda for today’s session.
As we walked to the pasture, I found myself nervously re-summarizing to the client the importance of the principles of choice and mutual partnership in building relationships, including for the horse, principles we had introduced and then affirmed repeatedly throughout the course of the therapy thus far, explaining the damage that would be done to our relationship with Gretta if we forced her to submit to being haltered and led to the round pen instead of asking for her cooperation in participating in the session. I was saying all the “right words” consistent with the principles of Natural Lifemanship, but inwardly I was struggling with concern for failing the client’s expectations and not meeting the client’s needs. My professional values of delivering a quality product and following through on commitment clashed with what I viewed as Tanner’s puritanical insistence that we wait for Gretta to choose to cooperate. As we walked through the gate into the pasture it began to rain. Tanner was standing next to Gretta holding out the halter calmly and patiently. Gretta looked tense with a determined set to her jaw. Surveying the scene, I was tense and angry, inwardly hissing at Tanner to just put the damn halter on and be done with it! Gretta’s nose was centimeters away from the noseband. So close!
I took a deep breath and decided to let Tanner explain to the client why she wasn’t going to be doing mounted trauma processing that day. As the rain slid down my already chilly neck, I morosely pictured this client terminating future sessions and walking away from EAP in frustration.
Tanner asked the client how Gretta seemed to be feeling about being haltered today. (“Not that bad,” I thought). The client observed that Gretta seemed anxious every time Tanner offered the halter to her.
“What would happen if I just put it on anyway?” he asked her. (“Nothing!” I screamed inside. “She would just stand there and let you do it!”)
The client thought a moment, then said, “She would probably let you do it, but it wouldn’t feel good to her on the inside.”
“How would it affect our relationship then?” Tanner continued.
“She would feel used,” the client responded. Then she continued, “I do that. I just want a certain outcome so I get impatient and push forward no matter what the other person is showing me they feel about it.”
Standing there in the rain, watching my client fully grasp what was happening between Gretta and Tanner, and applying it to her own life and style of relating, I felt the fallacy of my product-oriented, outcome-focused style of therapy come crashing down around me.
Yes, Tanner could have simply buckled the halter on Gretta and she probably would have followed him out of the pasture to the round pen, let us put on a bareback pad and then the client on her back, and walked around in circles behind Tanner while the client processed her traumatic memory. The client might even have felt some relief from the toxic emotions embedded in her experience. However, in approaching the session this way, sticking to our plan despite the clear feedback from a vital member of the therapy team, we would have violated the basic tenets of the Natural Lifemanship model of EAP: building an attuned, connected relationship is the goal of any interaction, and that this is the kind of good, healthy relationship that is the vehicle for healing and change. Gretta would have become a glorified rocking chair, a vehicle for carrying the client, reduced to a tool. Objectifying and instrumentalizing Gretta in this way would have modeled for the client that is o.k. to sometimes “use” others in the service of our recovery, that there are situations where the “higher good” of the outcome justifies the means employed to get there.
Not only Gretta’s welfare would have been compromised, however. The client’s potential for true, deeper healing would have been affected as well. Without the relational connection between the client and the one who carries her, the limbic system would not be engaged in a manner that promotes re-wiring of the faulty neural pathways wired around the trauma to grow new neuronal pathways of trust and growth. Gretta would have been left without even a connection to her horse professional, much less her rider. Her pathways for dissociation and compliance would be strengthened, making it much harder for her to trust offers of choice and connection in the future, and the client’s pathways for being controlled by or controlling others would unhappily be strengthened as well.
I called Laura (the director of education and research for NL) after the session, expressing concern about how the client might have perceived the experience, and her potential disappointment and frustration that she wasn’t able to process her trauma target that day. I shared my fears that I was compromising my professional responsibilities and explained that even when I’m having a bad day I have to show up for the client and attend to their needs, no matter how or what I’m feeling, despite the hard things that may be going on in my personal life. The therapeutic relationship is somewhat one-sided between counselor and client in that the counselor does not ask the client to meet her needs in the same way one might in a personal relationship. Laura pointed out that I have a choice about whether to conduct sessions when my personal life is in crisis, and that if I choose to meet with a client I’m deciding to put aside my personal struggles to attend to theirs. If our equine therapy partners are not able to make these choices in the same manner then how are we being congruent with our inherent belief that they are equal members of a team based on mutual partnership and cooperation? (In other words, Laura agreed with Tanner!)
In processing the session afterwards, Tanner and I discussed the importance of having alternative methods of trauma processing to offer the client should the equine partner not be able to participate in mounted work in a relationally connected manner on any given day, rather than trying to stick to the original plan, which would ultimately be at the expense of both client and horse. We could have the client walk beside the horse, perhaps touching her side as they walk together, or do traditional EMDR using eye movements or tappers, or employ other somatic interventions like drumming to provide the Dual Attention Stimulus and grounding involved in effective processing. Introducing these concepts at the beginning of the therapy process so the client understands that the course of the session will be dependent on what is actually happening relationally in the present rather than being defined by a pre-determined agenda will be key to developing a shared understanding of how Equine Assisted Psychotherapy true to the Natural Lifemanship model actually works.
Tanner’s Point of View
I had been working with Kathleen as her equine professional in therapy sessions for a couple of months. The person she had been partnering with previously went on maternity leave so I was filling in for sessions that were already in progress – basically, entering the process of therapy at some point other than the beginning. This provided many initial challenges. First, Kathleen had already built rapport and established a therapeutic relationship with the client and I was replacing someone who had also done the same. Second, I was working with Kathleen in therapy for the first time ever. We already had a relationship as NL trainers and had worked together in that capacity but had never actually worked together in therapy sessions. Third, I was working at an equine facility I had never visited before and was partnering with horses I had never met prior to these therapy sessions. Another part of that challenge was that I was only doing two sessions on Tuesday mornings at this facility and balancing that with a mountain of other responsibilities for Natural Lifemanship. I really did not have the time I would have preferred to meet and build relationships with the horses we would be partnering with in therapy sessions. (I know others can relate to this!) I would have to build these relationships as therapy sessions progressed and do so in a way that did not disrupt the process for the client. Furthermore, I had very little knowledge about the relationship patterns that the horses had developed from their interactions with various people on a daily basis and if those people were aligned with me and NL philosophically. I just wasn’t sure what the horses were learning about relationships outside of their interactions with me. I did not “own” these horses and I did not care for them daily, and I knew it was not reasonable for me to expect those who did to suddenly change their interactions based on my philosophy. Again, I know others can relate. Nonetheless, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so with all of these things in mind I began the process of working with Kathleen as part of the therapy team with the intention to take it as it comes and simply do my best to adapt and learn.
The transition into sessions went fairly smoothly and soon I was starting to learn about our client as well as the horses involved in our sessions. I was told that Gretta was the horse they had been partnering with for mounted work and went out to get her for one of our first sessions. I immediately noticed that Gretta was uncomfortable with my presence. She was tense in the ears, face, and eyes. When I said hello and asked her to engage, she maintained the tension and did her best to ignore my request for minimal attention. I found that I could walk right up to her and she was not threatening but she also would not really engage with me. I could touch her and she did not seem to change, respond, or react. She did not clearly say yes or no. She would even let me halter her. She did pull her head away slightly but not emphatically. It seemed as though she did not want anything to do with me but also did not expend any energy to get away from me. In my error, not knowing Gretta at all and only operating off of information from others and my own assumptions from that information, I put her halter on and led her out of the paddock. Throughout that morning’s interactions I learned a lot about Gretta. She disconnected and tried to eat grass at every opportunity. She was touchy around her girth and even grooming there caused her to pin her ears and nip at me. Tightening the girth of the bareback pad resulted in her attempting to bite me. Nonetheless, I gently did my best to push through all of these standard processes that a horse goes through in preparation for mounted work and started to lead her to the round pen. Leading her further away from the paddocks and barn to a round pen that was a little more remote, I noticed her anxiety increase significantly. She walked fast and out in front of me attempting to drag me along. Her head shot down to feverishly eat grass at every opportunity (one of her attempts to regulate). Her head would shoot up and ears and eyes harden as she looked at the round pen by the therapy cabin where we were to do our work for the morning. I stayed calm and continued to ask her to be aware of me and to walk without stepping on me as we moved to the round pen. When we entered the round pen, I removed the lead rope from her halter and she immediately trotted away investigating the round pen with an anxious energy. When I put a little pressure on her back hip and asked that she engage with me she appeared agitated and maybe even a bit angry. She pinned her ears and bucked and kicked and galloped around the pen. I did what I know to do and kept the pressure the same while staying calm and relational until she was able to connect and attach (follow me while calm, present, and connected). Then I asked her to detach (move way) and received the same anxious, aggressive response. I helped her calm down and engage through detachment and then asked her to reattach. When she was able to detach while remaining connected I reattached the lead rope and mounted. I wanted to make sure she was safe to ride. She proved to be ok but she was clearly still full of anxiety. However, the client had arrived and was waiting with Kathleen outside of the pen so that we could start her session. I decided this had to be good enough and we proceeded with the therapy session. We had the client mount and we started moving in a circle with me leading Gretta. At one point I remember the sun umbrella on the deck of the cabin suddenly falling over and spooking Gretta. She jumped sideways and almost lost our client but I was able to get her to stop. Gretta was obviously anxious and on edge the entire session – as we got to a certain section of the pen she would worry about something that was out in the trees. She would speed up and at times trot ahead of me as we passed this section of the pen. It was a stressful session for me as I had to do a lot of work trying to make sure Gretta was not going to hurt our client. I did not like having to manage all of that. I knew Gretta and I had a lot of work to do moving forward.
I made a lot of mistakes that first session and I took note of what I needed to improve and I started showing up at least an hour early for our sessions so that I could spend the appropriate amount of time connecting with Gretta and making sure I got true consent from her every step of the way before asking her to carry our client. I started really making sure Gretta was present when I made a request and that I was attuned to the emotions she felt around each request that I made. Typically, I would show up with the halter to bring her in and we would spend around 30 minutes in the paddock simply getting to the place in which she could look at me calmly, without anxiety, and then follow me at liberty while being fully present. I would offer the halter and wait for her to give me a clear yes and then proceed through the process of grooming and saddling and mounting with the same attuned concern for our relationship and her willful participation in the session. Her overall anxiety was starting to go down and things were improving steadily though she still seemed to be generally grumpy (and maybe even a little pissed) about being asked to do anything. It seemed to me that she typically felt lots of strong feelings in her daily life and just pushed them down and held them in – appeased, submitted, and dissociated. (Check out these two blogs to better understand dissociation with horses: When Dissociation Looks Like Cooperation or Six Signs Your Horse May be Dissociating or Submitting Rather than Choosing to Connect) When I would ask her to truly communicate with me how she felt about doing the things I was asking, it seemed I was the target of pent up aggression that she felt much of the time when I was not with her. Every morning an hour before session Gretta and I would work on this. It did not at all feel fair to me. I had no way of knowing if these outbursts towards me were a symptom of her daily life or a symptom of our relationship. What I did know, is that no matter what, I would have to be committed to doing the work to help her be less aggressive and more connected and I would have to do it slowly in that one hour before sessions on Tuesday mornings because that is all the time I could afford to spend with her. I would have to be happy taking improvements slowly as they came in hopes that the one hour I spent with Gretta each week, or every other week, would be enough to affect real change in her pattern of relating. Sound familiar? So I was committed to the relationship with Gretta and this is where we return to the morning that Kathleen arrives to discover me still asking Gretta to consent to the halter. (Can Animals Consent? – check out this blog on the subject)
It was a cold rainy day. The paddock had big sloppy hoof-shaped mud holes stomped out of it in the places where the horses preferred to gather around the round bale. It was not pleasurable to be out in the light mist trying to catch a horse for a therapy session that might not happen if it started raining any harder. So feeling some stress of my own I set out following Gretta through the mud and rain as she resisted basic engagement with me as usual. I stayed committed to our relationship – it seemed as though Gretta was begging me to take control of her – I refused.
At some point, Kathleen showed up and checked in on us. She watched for a bit and then had to return to the cabin to meet our client when she showed up. When the client arrived, she and Kathleen noticed me in virtually the same place with Gretta trying to resist and then comply but never really connecting with me. It started raining a little bit harder and Gretta was smart enough to move underneath the shed in the paddock. She would connect a little and follow me, then disconnect and resist and return to the shed where she would then reconnect with me. She seemed to be smart enough to want to continue this process out of the rain. I was happy to oblige. So. . . we were under the shed and were staying pretty connected and had progressed to working on accepting the halter. Gretta would get stark still and then try to check out (dissociate). I would ask her to reconnect and offer the halter and she would pull her head away showing tension in her ears and eyes and muzzle. I was acutely aware that our client had arrived and that I clearly did not have a horse prepared for mounted work. I expected Kathleen would have some other options and would arrive with the client to help her become a part of this process and that we would follow Gretta’s lead today. I was aware of my frustration and was consciously releasing the tension it caused in my body as I worked through this process with Gretta. Kathleen eventually emerged from the cabin asking if we were going to be ready soon. I was frustrated with this question as I thought it was pretty obvious that I could not give any definite answers to that question. Kathleen was polite but I could tell there was some tension and anxiety that accompanied the question. I suggested that she bring the client out so she could be a part of the process. Okay, so I basically suggested that Kathleen change the clinical plan for the session because the horse had not consented to participate.
It was not a comfortable feeling but I was not willing to accept compliance from Gretta, our client’s therapy partner. I was also keenly aware that I did not want to be responsible for the safety of a client on a horse who was anxious and had not consented to the halter and had certainly not consented to being ridden. The beauty of the situation is that both Kathleen and I were feeling some stress, pressure and anxiety, but were both able to regulate, relate, and reason so the session turned out to be beneficial for both horse and client. Remember, if it’s not good for both, it’s eventually not good for either, and true healing cannot happen at the expense of another. This work is about connection and relationship – for the client AND horse.
In a perfect world, after that first session with Gretta, I would have set aside loads of time for us to work on lots and lots of stuff before she resumed mounted work in therapy sessions. We all did our best in the moment and tried to adapt and change and grow. We continue down that path.
Tanner and Kathleen are both NL trainers and will be teaching at the 2019 NL Conference. Check it out!
In this field, it is not uncommon to hear people answer the question “Why Horses?” with some variation of how horses help us learn how to set healthy boundaries. Is this true? Well, it depends. . .
In Natural Lifemanship we believe that horses help us learn how to build healthy, connected relationships. We teach that in order to build healthy connections we must have healthy boundaries. We also teach that the need to set boundaries is a connection issue – a connection issue that can only be addressed by seeking to build stronger connection.
Setting boundaries is certainly necessary at times to establish safety, but it is important to understand that while the setting of a boundary may establish safety it could also damage the connection. In a relationship that matters (one in which I plan to stay), it is our intent to build connection. Healthy boundaries are set by me for me, not for someone else by me. We also teach that in a healthy relationship it is important to focus on what I do want (connection), instead of focusing on what I don’t want. Typically, when a person is setting a boundary they are focused on what they don’t want, which often results in an attempt to control the other. AND when control enters the relationship, connection leaves – control of the other and connection simply cannot co-exist.
When doing TF-EAP or TI-EAL, it is important that when the subject of boundaries arises, we teach our clients how to build connection by having boundaries, rather than inadvertently teaching them to control others by setting boundaries.
Having boundaries simply put is:
- I am me and you are you.
- My body is my body, and I have a right to choose what happens with it
- My feelings are my feelings, and I have a right to my own feelings.
- My thoughts are my thoughts, and I have a right to my own thoughts
- It is not my job to fix others
- It is okay for others to feel any emotion – anger, sadness, rage, loneliness etc.
- I don’t have to read the minds of others or anticipate their needs
- It is okay to say no
- I need only take responsibility for myself
- Nobody has to agree with me
- This is a way of being in the world and in relationships
Timothy was a 9-year-old male participating in Trauma Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP). He had a history of abuse and neglect. He struggled socially and was often bullied in school. He was in the foster care system. In 5 years he had lived in 12 different homes and gone to 10 different schools. When he started our program he chose to work with a mini horse named Ladybug who had some of the same struggles as Timothy. In fact, when asked why he chose Ladybug, Timothy said, “Because she is little and gets bullied a lot and has trouble making friends.” What he didn’t know is that Ladybug had quite a reputation, and as a result was not working in any other sessions. . . she was what horse people often call “mouthy,” and at times would straight up bite. Sweet little Ladybug could be quite intimidating to any person or animal she felt was smaller in spirit or stature – she was scared, so the survival regions of her brain tried to control others in an attempt to relieve her anxiety. All this resulted in her being bullied even more – she was covered in bite marks.
Timothy was intelligent, kind, had a great sense of humor, and . . . he was a hot mess! Gosh he was cute, but I didn’t have to live with him! His foster parents were simply beside themselves, and Ladybug understood why. Ladybug quickly picked up on his unpredictability and passivity, and within a couple sessions she was chasing Timothy while nipping at his rear. I have to admit, the horse person in me kinda wanted to tell him to pop her on the nose – SET a boundary! For Pete’s sake, she was bullying my client!
BUT we knew Timothy and Ladybug both desperately needed healthy connection to feel safe. Timothy needed to learn to have boundaries. If he had boundaries and healthy relationships, the need to set boundaries would lessen. He needed to learn to ask for what he needs, rather than focus on what he doesn’t want. Frankly, he had already tried telling his peers what not to do. He had told the teacher. He told his foster parents. The foster parents met with the school. The teacher told the other children to stop. And on and on. . . sigh. You all know the story.
So, Timothy began asking Ladybug for connection. At first, he had to ask her to move away because she was not safe, but he asked her to do this while still maintaining connection (more information about attachment and detachment in session). He didn’t tell her to go away. He would say, “Ladybug I want a friendship with you, but I need some space first. Can we be friends while you stand over there?” Then he would ask her to follow him while being present, calm, and kind. He danced back and forth between these two things for many weeks (as a side note: Timothy was meeting with us twice a week. He partnered with Ladybug one session and partnered with another horse for mounted work the other session). He practiced empathy – understanding how hard it was for Ladybug to connect instead of try to control, while still understanding that it is not his job to fix her. It was simply his job to make requests and then respond depending on Ladybug’s response. He was only responsible for his response to her. It was not his job to make her do anything or not do anything. There is a fine line between reflecting on what one could do differently and accepting responsibility for another’s aggressive behavior. Timothy practiced never accepting responsibility for her biting, while still realizing that he needed to practice assertiveness, focus, and connection. He had to give a little trust in order to get some trust – this took risk and vulnerability. He practiced allowing her to struggle without feeling the need to fix it – lots of deep breathes and time spent learning how to regulate.
No matter how Ladybug acted, Timothy would try to take a deep breath and say things like, “It is okay for you to be mad, but I still choose to be calm.” “I know this hard, but you can connect in a way that is safe for both of us.” He spent a lot of time learning what it means to ask Ladybug to be his friend, keeping the door open for that possibility, while maintaining the boundary that, “We can be friends when it is safe.” Timothy focused on his desire for connection, and kept in mind that Ladybug did want a friendship – she just wasn’t yet sure how to have one in a safe manner. He asked Ladybug to move away with connection and follow him with connection.
He did not learn to get big.
He did not make Ladybug go away as a punishment.
He did not yell.
He did not hit.
He focused on what he did want – a friendship – connection.
He learned to be assertive (use exactly the amount of energy needed to build a safe, connected relationship).
Ladybug completely quit biting and nipping at Timothy. The amazing thing is that Timothy never once asked or told Ladybug to stop biting! When she would nip at him, he would gently ask her to move away while still remaining calm and paying attention to him. He didn’t want her to withdraw because that damages connection. He didn’t want to scare her or punish her because that, too, damages connection. Then he would offer her a “do-over” (more information about Do-Overs). He would ask her to come back and see if they could experience connection through closeness in a safe way. Timothy learned to be soft, strong, calm, and comfortable in his own body. Over time he began to make friends and the bullying just seemed to stop. Ladybug’s relationship with her herd also seemed to change. We began to notice that the old bite marks had healed and there were no new ones.
I asked him one day why he didn’t think he was being bullied anymore and he said simply, “When you have good relationships you don’t get bullied.”
I asked him why he thought Ladybug was also no longer being bullied. He smiled at me, with so much pride in his face, and as he shrugged his shoulders he said, “When you have good relationships you don’t get bullied.”