In December 2017, I attended my first NL Intensive training in Brenham, TX. I’m pretty sure it was day two, which in my experience at these trainings, is when things really start getting stirred up internally. This life lesson came to me in my blind spot. Like a horse’s blind spot, it was right in front of my face (or maybe right behind my rear?). In fact, the only one who could see what was going on was my partner for the weekend.
I was in the round pen with the horse, Indigo (name has been changed for this article), trying to connect through attachment. When we had worked together the day before, we had a pretty quick connection, so I figured it would happen pretty easily again. This was not the case. Indigo was completely ignoring me. So I started to gradually increase my efforts, going from clucking and calling her name, to stomping my feet, to waving my hands in the air, to getting closer and jumping up and down and waving my hands all at the same time.
My partner stopped me (thank goodness!). I walked over to her and took a much needed break from all the jumping and flailing around. She said something simple like, “It seems to me like your energy on the outside does not match your energy on the inside”. At first I shot a quick answer back like, “Really? I feel like all of my energy is as high as it can go! I don’t know what else to do.” And then the thought settled somewhere deep within, and I took a deep breath and looked at her. She was right.
At some point, Tim Jobe had joined the conversation (he has a way of popping in at the just the right moment). He asked something to the effect of, “What might be keeping you from raising your internal energy?” I explained that it felt like there is a line that divides where I feel safe and comfortable to make an “ask” in a relationship and where it feels all together too risky and vulnerable. Tim asked, “What is the risk if you cross that line?” I started to process out loud about how if I gave more energy toward the relationship, what if it wasn’t reciprocated? What if she still kept ignoring me? The fear of losing what connection I did have seemed to outweigh the potential of gaining an even deeper connection. A wave of realization was rushing over me. This, of course, directly correlated to how I often felt in my human relationships.
Then something beautiful happened that I’ll never forget. By this point, I was back to standing in proximity to Indigo. As soon as I acknowledged my true inner feelings to Tim and my partner, Indigo turned and came toward me. She planted herself right there next to me as tears began to steadily stream down my face. I hadn’t even asked her to come over. She chose to all on her own. And all I could do was stand there next to her and let the tears fall freely. I savored that moment with her and all that she “said” to me through her actions.
In a way that only a horse can, she affirmed so many truths for me in this moment. She affirmed that all she wanted was the real me. She didn’t require that I had it all together. She only required that I was being real with myself and with her. It was as if she was saying, “Oh good, you’re truly present with me and now I want to come be with you”. She also affirmed that the experience of a connection like this was totally worth the risk and vulnerability it took to get it.
“Most people believe vulnerability is weakness. But really, vulnerability is courage. We must ask ourselves…are we willing to show up and be seen?”
Self-sufficiency has met her match, her name is Vulnerability. It’s only through vulnerability that true connection is experienced. Self-sufficiency may give a false sense of security, but it will forever leave me feeling disconnected from others. Indigo helped me realize that what I want more than independence and self-sufficiency is the sense of being known and accepted for who I am. In order to get this, I have to show up in relationships as my authentic, vulnerable, messy self.
Every day we have the choice. Today I choose vulnerability.
Jamie offers life coaching, both equine assisted and non-equine, to the Central Ohio area. She is dual certified through Natural Lifemanship as a Practitioner and an Equine Professional and is a certified Life Coach through the JRNI Catalyst Coaching Intensive. Her coaching business, Hope Anew, thrives on this motto: Healing Occurs through Purposeful Elements- Art, Nature, Environment, and Well-being. She loves taking creative approaches to helping people on their path to personal growth, as the path to transformation looks different for everyone!
How Cross Brain Connections Literally Saved My Life!
In this blog, I will discuss how a healthy brain develops and how trauma impacts this process by localizing neural connections in the lower regions of the brain, the part concerned with survival. I will share ways we can capitalize on the brain’s neuroplasticity and capacity to heal with strategies to increase cross brain connectivity, ending with an example of this from my own personal experience of being assaulted on two different occasions.
There is a great deal of discussion in Trauma-Informed Care about cross brain connections, neural pathways that connect throughout the different areas of the brain, leading to a greater capacity for self-regulation and smooth emotional state shifting in response to environmental cues. Brain development begins in utero, developing sequentially from the bottom to the top and from the inside out in response to sensory input. The first part of the brain to develop is the brainstem, which is responsible for regulating autonomic functions like heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature, sleep, and appetite. We generally do not have to think about these functions unless something goes wrong with them (during an asthma or heart attack, for example). The brainstem, which as its name suggests, is at the base of the brain, is responsible for basic survival and is where our fight, flight and freeze responses originate in response to a trauma trigger.
The next region of the brain to develop is the diencephalon, which regulates motor control. (When the freeze response is triggered by the brainstem it indicates that the diencephalon, as well as all of the regions of the brain above it, have essentially gone “offline”). Following that is the limbic system, which regulates our emotions and makes us capable of attachment and relational connection. The last part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which allows for abstract and concrete thought, impulse control, planning and other aspects of executive functioning. The neocortex may not be fully developed and functional until well into a person’s second decade of life.
Trauma can be defined as input that is arrhythmic and unpredictable. If a pregnancy is unwanted, or the mother is in a chaotic environment due to poverty and domestic violence, or she struggles with a mental disorder or uses drugs, for example, the fetus is exposed to a barrage of arrhythmic sensory input in the womb. The mother’s heart-rate may be irregular, the cadence of her voice may be harsh or distressed, and her body may be secreting stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline that acid washes the womb for nine months. The part of the brain that receives the most sensory input will be the most well developed, as the neurons flock there in response to continuous activation. A baby experiencing intra-uterine trauma of any sort will be born prepared for survival, with most of his or her neurons clustered in the lower regions of the brain. A baby whose gestation was full of rhythmic, predictable sensory input from his mother’s well-regulated heartbeat, calm voice, and soothing chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, will be born with up to fifty percent of his neurons having migrated to the neocortex, ready for language and learning. Intra-uterine trauma primes the baby’s brain to form local connections in the lower regions of the brain in anticipation of being born into a chaotic, unpredictable environment. The foundation for future development is compromised, and any subsequent trauma layers on top of this shaky substrate to create a brain muscled up for survival and reactivity, with few cross brain connections allowing for a regulated, integrated response to environmental or relational stimuli.
Dr. Bruce Perry points out that trauma interferes with what he terms smooth “state shifting,” referring to the ability of the brain to communicate between all of its regions to come up with the best response to deal with the situation at hand. Healthy brain development allows a person to accurately interpret input and respond appropriately based on what is actually happening in the present. In the case of a car careening into your lane of traffic, the amygdala sounds the alarm in the limbic system, the diencephalon kicks in and prompts you to quickly maneuver out of the way, and the brainstem briefly shuts down unnecessary functions like digestion that would divert energy away from dealing with the crisis. The neocortex, which would unnecessarily delay the response time, essentially goes offline. Whether the car barreling towards you is a Mercedes or a Chevrolet is completely irrelevant to your survival. Determining the color, make or model of the vehicle occupies precious time and attention that keeps you in harm’s way longer than necessary and compromises your ability to keep yourself safe. When cross-brain connections are absent, and the different regions of the brain lack neural pathways to communicate efficiently, the array of responses a person has is limited. A traumatized individual might get stuck in his brainstem, lose access to his diencephalon, freeze, and be unable to turn the steering wheel, incurring a collision with the oncoming car.
This is essentially what happened to me when I was assaulted in my early 20’s in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I was using a public restroom when a man who apparently had been hiding in the stall next to mine burst under the dividing wall and attacked me. I completely froze. I could not move, cry out, or think of how to defend myself. I never reported the assault or pursued any kind of help afterward. I simply left it buried in my brainstem and used my already active eating disorder and dissociative pathways to cope. When I unexpectedly became pregnant with my first child three years later, I realized my unhealthy patterns were going to affect my baby in damaging ways. Facing the huge responsibility of carrying and then caring for a child provided the incentive I needed to pursue healing in so many areas of my life. Although I worked hard on my recovery, my very stubborn pathways for dissociating from strong emotions and avoiding what I perceived to be the dangers of intimacy remained strong.
When I discovered Natural Lifemanship, I knew these principles of relational connection and partnership were the missing pieces to my healing puzzle. I was initially dismayed to find how much I struggled to experience connection in the round pen with the horses, but as I kept practicing asking for attachment and detachment, I found over time that I was starting to feel my emotions and body sensations more consistently and accurately, both with horses and with people. Through both ground (Relationship Logic) and mounted work (Rhythmic Riding), I strengthened the cross brain connections necessary to stay regulated and grounded without checking out in stressful situations. My sense of peace and confidence and ability to stay present and connected to myself continued to grow.
Last year all of this was put to the test when I was out running in my neighborhood early in the morning. I heard footsteps behind me on a narrow stretch of sidewalk bordered by tall hedges and a railing on either side and turned sideways, thinking another runner wanted to pass me. Instead, he grabbed me by the shoulders, muttered the word “sorry” and threw me to the ground. My brain immediately went into gear. Just the night before I had shared a public service announcement from the Austin Police Department with my running group concerning a sexual predator who had been assaulting female runners. I could literally see the list of suggestions in my mind and began sorting through them. “Make noise,” my brain said, and I started screaming as loud as I could. My assailant covered my mouth with his hand. “Fight back,” my brain commanded, and I shook one of my arms free and tried to push him off. As he tightened his grip, I remembered, “Strike where he is most vulnerable,” so I started reaching towards his groin area as best as I could. His eyes widened in surprise and he suddenly let go of me, slamming my head into the pavement. I don’t know how long I lost consciousness, but as I came to, I heard a voice shouting, “Get up! Get up! You have to get up NOW!” I realized the voice was my own; it was my brain, telling me I needed to mobilize in case he came back. I was able to get up and wobble up the hill until I met another runner who took me to her house and called 911.
I reported this assault. I went to the emergency room, made a statement to the police, and described the suspect to a forensic artist who captured his likeness quite accurately. I engaged in therapy, and spent hours in the round pen with horses, crying, connecting, and healing. I shared my experience with my running group and put together a tip sheet for runner safety, which I shared with other running groups in the area. I attended a self-defense class. Despite the temptation to revert to old patterns of dissociating from my fear and pain, I practiced feeling all the emotions in the aftermath of this trauma, letting myself weep when the detective called to say my suspect’s DNA was found on another victim. I gave myself permission to be scared, sad, and also proud. Proud that I had done the hard work to develop the cross brain connections that allowed me to fight back instead of freezing during my second assault. During my therapy for this attack, I was able to process my first one as well.
Cross brain connections are essential for flexible thinking and appropriate responses. Practicing mindfulness and grounding skills on a regular basis allows these neural pathways to develop and strengthen in a brain compromised by arrhythmic, unpredictable input. Research continues to highlight the neuroplasticity of the brain in response to rhythmic sensory input that allows it to heal and integrate following trauma. Expanding local connections into cross brain connections enhances our ability to experience emotional regulation so that we can build healthier, more satisfying relationships with ourselves and with others.
How does one build or repair cross brain connections?
A daily practice of mindfulness (meditation, yoga, or centering prayer, for example) has been shown to improve brain connection and functioning. Exposure to reparative or corrective relational experiences also contributes to building neural pathways from the lower to the upper regions of the brain. Trauma victims often repeat dysfunctional patterns in the relationship due to compromised neural connections in the brain, reinforcing their trauma pathways. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy involves partnering with a horse to provide opportunities for new pathways to form a healthy relationship is built between horse and human under the guidance of a therapist and equine specialist. Clients learn how to build and sustain healthier relationship patterns as their brains literally re-wire through the experiential component of the therapeutic work with the horses. Through a combination of ground and mounted work, a person can learn self-regulation skills, positive coping resources, and begin to heal from their trauma.
What are cross brain connections good for? At some point, they just might save your life.
Oliver was sitting in a stall with Banjo, holding a saddle close to his chest, slumped over in defeat. It was yet another session that he tried to ride Banjo and failed. The Equine Professional and I stayed connected with Oliver, guiding him through self-regulation exercises and resisting the urge to rescue him or provide detailed instructions. Oliver wanted us to provide direction and he became frustrated at times when we encouraged him to find his own path to connecting with Banjo. Banjo stood beside him, patiently waiting and breathing slowly. Oliver continued to hug the saddle and his eyes seemed to glaze over at times like he was a thousand miles away. Banjo stomped one hoof, then another. Oliver blinked a few times and looked at him. Oliver started to check out again, but not for long. Banjo continued to make the request for him to stay present, using body movement and breath to get Oliver’s attention. Banjo was consistent and they continued this back and forth interaction until Oliver became calm and fully present. Oliver tilted his head and stared at Banjo with a gleam in his eye, a slow smile appeared on his face. It was in that moment, while sitting in the corner of the stall, that hot summer day, that something shifted in Oliver. He dropped the saddle, took a big belly breath and realized that this relationship was going to be different…it had to be different.
Oliver’s chronic anxiety led to an environment where his family managed almost every aspect of his life. He had little independence. At 12 years old, he was sleeping in his parent’s bed with the overhead light left on. Oliver was afraid of the dark, among other things. With peers, he tended to be controlling and confrontational; he struggled with reciprocity in play. During our intake session, Oliver hid behind his mother, continuously rolling his eyes, speaking in a goofy voice, and laughing nervously after everything he said. He avoided eye contact and deflected direct interaction. His parents answered questions for him. When we redirected our attention to Oliver, he appeared startled and confused, like he had just woken up.
After picking Banjo that first day, Oliver walked, almost stomped, directly to the barn. We had to jog a bit just to keep up with him. He told us he wanted to ride Banjo and looked at us expectantly. The Equine Professional and I paused and looked at each other to check in, communicating non-verbally that we were on the same page. We knew that if we intervened and said “no”, we would be setting the tone for the therapeutic relationship going forward, one of power and control. Instead, we trusted the process, we trusted ourselves, and we relied on Natural Lifemanship Principles. We communicated to Oliver that only he could decide what was best for his relationship with Banjo. Over the next several sessions, Oliver and Banjo danced. Oliver moved forward with the saddle and Banjo moved away. At times Oliver was able to self-regulate, opening himself up for connection. In these moments, Banjo moved closer to him. Oliver got excited, quickly grabbed the saddle and marched over to meet Banjo. Banjo immediately backed away. Eventually, Oliver realized that his agenda to ride was taking him further away from what he desired most, connection.
Oliver then chose to move from the barn to the round pen to work on his connection with Banjo. He often began sessions by pacing around the perimeter of the round pen, pulling weeds and throwing them out of the round pen like a baseball. At first, this startled Banjo, but Banjo continued to be patient and cautious. Picking and throwing weeds was a regulating activity for Oliver that allowed him to connect with himself. His connection with-in opened the door for connection with Banjo…Banjo began to follow Oliver, stopping when he stopped to pick up another weed and launch it outside the round pen. Oliver would then continue to walk and Banjo would follow. At times, Oliver would run around the round pen and request Banjo to follow him. Banjo is an older horse and preferred to walk. Oliver was able to stay connected and realize that Banjo had some requests of his own. Their connection grew stronger. At times, Oliver’s mind would wander while he walked, Banjo would gently nudge him in the shoulder to help him stay present. Oliver found his own way to regulate and connect, by pulling and throwing weeds. This was more powerful than anything we could have suggested because it came from within. It was a reminder to keep the process client-led and provide a space for our clients to experiment and explore.
One day, Oliver came to session after a particularly hard day at school. He was having trouble regulating himself and asked for our help as he sat in the middle of the round pen. I asked Oliver to lie down on the ground and close his eyes while the Equine Professional put Banjo on a lead rope. Oliver became attuned to his breath and the ground beneath him, engaging the lower regions of his brain. We then asked him to bring his awareness to Banjo, bringing his limbic system online. The Equine Professional walked with Banjo around the pen while Oliver kept his eyes closed and tapped into his other senses to locate Banjo. Oliver was engaging in bottom-up regulation. He then used his neocortex to problem solve where Banjo was in the round pen while continuing to regulate the lower regions of his brain by rhythmically rocking back and forth. While his eyes were still closed, Oliver made a request for connection. He wanted Banjo to stop eating grass and to come to greet him in the center of the pen. The Equine Professional dropped the lead rope. We asked Oliver to imagine what it would look and feel like for Banjo to approach him while keeping his eyes closed. “Well, he would take one step forward….then he would eat a little more grass…then take another step forward…then another step” Oliver replied.
Banjo began to slowly approach Oliver, one step at a time while continuing to enjoy the delicious grass beneath him. Oliver became a little impatient. He took a big belly breath and said, “I wish he would just hurry up”. Banjo immediately pulled his head up from grazing and quickly walked over to Oliver, nuzzling his hair when he reached him. Oliver opened his eyes and laughed in pure joy.
Oliver was building pathways in his brain for a new way of interacting with others and began to employ a whole-brain understanding that true connection comes from within.
In his latest book, The Divine Dance, author Richard Rohr quotes a psychiatrist friend of his as attributing most non-physiologically based mental illness to being disconnected from intimate relationships. While he acknowledges biological and genetic underpinnings to the development of a mental disorder, in his view, “loneliness is what activates it.”
Maia Szalavitz echoes this idea in her book on addiction titled Unbroken Brain where she points out that addicts in treatment programs that emphasize supportive, empathetic relationships where they are treated with respect and dignity have higher recovery rates than those in “tough love” programs based on more shame-based, punitive principles.
We have a natural need for bonding and connection
In his exploration of what causes some people to become addicts when exposed to drugs and other to remain recreational users, Johann Hari notes in his Ted Talk: “Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond,and when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other,but if you can’t do that,because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life,you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief.Now, that might be gambling. That might be pornography.That might be cocaine. That might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature.That’s what we want as human beings.”
Research consistently shows that people with strong ties to family, friends and community live longer and have better psychological, emotional and physical health than those who are isolated. They also report less depression and anxiety, a more positive self view and a greater sense of satisfaction with their life overall. Loneliness is not only a difficult experience emotionally, but often results in our making choices that negatively affect our psychological and physical health as well. We may turn to addictions like alcohol, drugs, pornography, and gambling to fill the emptiness we feel inside. Environmental stressors may pull the trigger on a pathway we are genetically pre-disposed to, like an eating disorder, that gives us the illusion of control and self-protection from rejection or other relational wounds.
Attachment and coping measures
Based on our early attachment experiences in childhood, when we are upset or frightened we either move towards or away from relationships for comfort. If our needs were consistently met in nurturing ways by attuned caregivers in infancy, we view the world as a generally trustworthy place and expect to find support when we seek solace from others. If we experienced neglect, abuse, or mis-attuned responses such as being ignored when upset or stimulated when fatigued and in need of rest, we learn that relationships are not a source of safety but of confusion or harm. Our needs may be invalidated or negated in ways that leave us unsure of the accuracy or importance of our own feelings, wants and perceptions. We become filled with shame, self doubt, and insecurity and seek ways to soothe and regulate our emotional distress since co-regulation with caregivers is not a reliable option.
Children have limited resources to turn to for coping measures. Often food is one of the options available and rather than our eating being regulated by hunger and fullness, we start using food to change our emotional states. Restricting can lead to a sense of euphoria and power. Bingeing can lull our senses into a state of numbness and help us detach from painful feelings of shame or fear. Instead of responding to physical cues of appetite and satiety, we eat (or don’t) in response to emotional cues. Again, moving towards safe relationships can be a powerful interruption to these established emotional eating habits.
Having a positive relational exchange releases oxytocin, known as “the cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin has been shown to regulate appetite, decrease hunger and increase positive feelings of well being. This release has even been documented in humans who spend time with animals. Petting a dog or cat can lower heart rate and blood pressure and release chemicals in the blood stream like oxytocin that decrease our craving for food and interrupt the emotional eating pathway.
Likewise, reaching out to a friend for support instead of reaching for that bag of chips or carton of ice cream can fill the void in a way that food never will. This involves risk. Food does not reject, criticize or ignore us. It is generally available and delivers consistent taste, texture, and “results” in terms of the sedating or numbing effect we are seeking in that painful moment. A friend may not respond, or respond in a way that feels unhelpful, which only adds to our distress.
Investing in healthy relationships
Building a strong network of supportive, caring relationships requires an investment of time and energy and a willingness to experience relational wounds and repairs on an ongoing basis. Having this network, however, will increase the chances of a positive response to our bid for support and decrease our dependence on ultimately self-destructive and unsatisfying coping methods that only temporarily distract from our pain, rather than becoming a source of healing and recovery.
Healthy relationships are an important part of building resilience to life’s stressors as well as for recovery from addictions, disorders and trauma. People who have developed an insecure attachment style due to early childhood abuse or neglect, or whose ability to trust has been damaged by trauma, may have difficulty building the positive types of relationships that promote healing and recovery.
The Natural Lifemanship model of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy focuses on helping people develop secure, attuned relationships. Experiencing a strong therapeutic alliance with a qualified therapist can help someone learn how to have secure attachments and create connected, attuned relationships outside of the therapy office. Equine assisted therapy focuses on building this connection with a horse and then transferring the principles to human relationships with greater confidence of success.
If you feel isolated or stuck in unhealthy relationship patterns, go to www.naturallifemanship.com to find a qualified therapist who can help.
If you work with clients around addiction, check out our Disease of Disconnection course, a trauma-informed understanding of addiction to reveal the underlying factors that create and perpetuate the addiction cycle.
…One Woman’s Experience Overcoming Traumatic Abuse Using Natural Lifemanship
I watched her make her way to the therapy office for her intake session, struck by the way she made her approach: crouching down, she almost seemed to be crawling towards the door; constantly looking over her shoulder before ducking her head again. Her trajectory weaved in zig zagging diagonals across the open space between her weather beaten pick up truck and where I was now standing on the front porch. “Hello, *Dee!” I called out, hoping not to startle her. She stopped and stared at me for a full minute, eyes wide, statue-like among the wildflowers blooming along the path. I knew their bright colors were lost on her. The only thing Dee could see at this moment was the distance that remained between her and the door, and the dubious likelihood that she would make it there safely. This was my first introduction to one of the most traumatized clients I have ever worked with using Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
Dee had been referred for EAP by her social worker because she has been brutally raped by a neighbor whom she let into her home when he promised to help change her air filters. Dee struggled with balance issues and was afraid to stand on a ladder to change them herself, but also suffered from asthma so she overcame her natural reticence of men in hopes that clean filters might help her to breathe better. Dee’s decision to trust this seemingly good Samaritan proved to be catastrophic when he held her captive for hours and subjected her to unspeakable suffering. Dee came to me suffering from panic attacks, insomnia, flashbacks, vertigo, anxiety, and depression. She experienced dissociative spells where she would lose days at a time, lying trance-like on her couch without eating or having any contact with other people. Coming to our therapy appointment was the first time she had left her apartment in the past 3 weeks.
I had to be careful to always walk where Dee could see me, a little ahead of her, never behind, and never too close. I noticed, though, that she could let the horses into her space much more easily. She chose a horse with which to build relationship fairly quickly, a light colored Palomino that she nick-named Sunny. Dee spent hours grooming Sunny, untangling her tail, feeding her slices of apple, talking around and around the assault. I wasn’t allowed to label anything that had happened to her accurately; she flinched and reacted when I used words like assault or rapist, preferring to say “the event” or “that man.” Little details about past abuse drifted out: an abusive, alcoholic father, then a series of similar stepfathers, until she married an abusive alcoholic, whom she left behind in another state to come here, and encountered again in the form of a treacherous neighbor. All the while the brush made rhythmic, circular patterns on Sunny’s side as Dee and I breathed in and out together, inhaling the soothing smell and presence of her horse, exhaling the pain and suffering she had experienced throughout her troubled life.
When we started working on increasing their attachment, Dee stopped bringing apples to sessions because she said: “I want Sunny to be connected to me, not the food, and the apples make her pushy and rude.” Indeed, Sunny spent a great deal of time early in the therapy work pushing into Dee’s space and driving her around the pen instead of following her during attachment work. Dee allowed this to happen for a long time before recognizing she had re-created the bullying patterns of relationships she experienced with the abusive men in her past. Once she realized that her passive (too low) body energy invited aggression from Sunny, Dee began using appropriate amounts of pressure to make requests for connection. As Dee grasped that she was worth being recognized and respected, she and Sunny had more positive interactions.
Detachment felt better to Dee than attachment initially but worse for Sunny. Sunny often simply refused to step away and allow space between herself and Dee. Dee would allow her to stay, stroking her neck and worrying about Sunny feeling rejected if Dee insisted on creating some space between them. We reflected how giving herself space had never been an option for Dee in the past because she allowed other people to set the terms for the relationship. We worked on creating safety for both of them using appropriate levels of body energy to maintain the pressure when Sunny resisted the request to move away from Dee.
On the day Dee felt ready to tell her whole story, she paced around the round pen in jerky, short strides. Sunny fell in step behind her. Dee spit out her pain in ragged, harsh tones. Sunny fell behind, eyes wide, ears upright and forward, body rigid. Eventually, she stopped following Dee and stood stock still in the middle of the pen. Dee didn’t notice at first, continuing to hurtle around the pen in a frenzy of anguish. Her voice trailed off when she saw Sunny’s frozen stance. She burst into the first tears she had shed in a session. “I’ve frightened her . .. it’s too much,” Dee cried, crumpling to the ground. Sunny walked over to where Dee lay in a heap and breathed softly in her ear. The mare’s eyes were half closed and her body was relaxed. She cocked one hind leg as she stood vigil over her sobbing friend. I pointed out that Sunny did not seem to be overwhelmed by Dee’s story, or her pain. Dee finished her account siting cross legged on the ground, Sunny’s head resting against her shoulder, stroking the blaze that ran down her face. Her tone was soft, her words unhurried and thoughtful. She used the language we had created together, naming her rapist and the assault as well as the rage and grief that followed. Sunny and I created a safe space for Dee to experience her pain and be accepted and supported through it.
In subsequent sessions, Dee participated in equine assisted trauma processing (informed by my training in TF-EAP and EMDR) to help her begin to re-process her traumatic memories. This kind of mounted work helps metabolize traumatic memories that have been frozen in their original state so that the intense emotions they trigger can be released and the traumatic memory can be stored in the brain the way that normal memories are stored. I explained how her brain literally needed to be “re-wired” so that she didn’t remain in the survival part or base of her brain, in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and fear, or in the limbic system, or mid brain, in an emotionally escalated state, but could be in the thinking part of her brain, her neocortex, to make more informed decisions about the input coming in from the environment, giving her a wider range of responses available to her than the avoidant and dissociative tendencies she had been relying on to avoid being triggered into a state of panic.
At one point in the therapy, Dee had to go back to her home state to visit her daughter, who had been hospitalized after an accident. Dee had created a Safe Place Protocol as part of her trauma processing work, visualizing a meadow full of flowers where she and Sunny played and dozed. The warm, wonderful feelings accompanying that visualization helped Dee ward off the panic the survival part of her brain produced whenever she thought about going back to the place where her ex-husband and other abusers still lived. Using mindfulness and grounding techniques, Dee practiced remaining fully present in the round pen with Sunny instead of dissociating in a panic while visualizing flying home to visit her daughter. Every time Dee started to dissociate, Sunny disconnected from her, turning or walking way. Sunny taught Dee how to recognize when the dissociation started, and how to catch and change this habitual pathway in her brain with mindfulness techniques before her mind completely drifted away. “I miss her when she leaves,” Dee would say. Staying connected with Sunny became Dee’s motivation to work on her dissociative tendencies. She walked beside Sunny, with a hand on her side, so she could feel the rhythm of Sunny’s heartbeat and breathing and use it to regulate her own. (When calm, a horse’s resting heart rate is 38 – 40 beats per minutes, considerably slower than a human’s, particularly a traumatized human. The large electro-magnetic field of a horse’s heart can help regulate the heart rates of those around him.)
Dee was able to successfully travel home to visit her daughter without incident. By the time we finished therapy, Dee was not only leaving the apartment for her sessions, but also taking her newly acquired rescue dog to a dog park and talking to other dog owners she met there. Whenever she began to feel panicky, she would visualize being connected to Sunny and breathe deeply through the wave of anxiety until it passed. Before leaving therapy, we took some of Sunny’s hair from her mane and tail and braided the strands into a bracelet that Dee could wear as a transitional object. Dee recently texted me that while she misses coming to see Sunny, “I carry her in my mind and heart and can experience her presence whenever I need her.” They built a truly lasting internal connection!
*all names and identifying information have been changed to protect confidentiality
Here is a breakdown of some of our sessions:
There is a powerlessness involved in the aftermath of experiencing trauma that can cause a person to internalize false messages concerning their efficacy at problem-solving, initiating activity, engaging in relationships and succeeding at tasks. They begin to shrink away from trying new things and doubt their ability to be successful in areas they may have previously been comfortable with. Dee presented with a great deal of self-doubt and insecurity in all of these areas. In fact, when I first started working with her, she was only leaving her apartment for therapy sessions and doctor’s appointments. She felt completely defeated by tasks that she used to handle with ease such as driving or shopping. Contemplating a trip to the store would trigger a wave of panic. She developed agoraphobia and her world shrank to the confines of her apartment. In order to be able to participate more fully in her life, Dee was going to have to be able to regulate her emotions when faced with a task she now found daunting.
Rhythmic Riding provides a source for passive “bottom-up regulation” and presents wonderful opportunities for the client to learn to regulate their emotions. By starting with a stress level just slightly outside of their window of tolerance, the client can practice staying calm using skills taught first on the ground, then while mounted. Using breath to self-regulate is an easy way to maintain or return to a calm state. Horses regularly “sigh” or take a deep breath to release stress and regain their equilibrium. I asked Dee to notice when Sunny exhaled in this way, especially when she blew out her lips in what humans would call “a raspberry” or “pursed lip breathing.” Dee observed that when she was particularly upset during a session, Sunny would yawn and exhale to release stress. This helped Dee become more aware of when she was minimizing or dissociating from her anxiety. Dee would take deep breaths, pushing the air all the way down into her stomach before releasing it (belly breathing) while counting each breath so that the inhale matched the exhale (rhythmic breathing).
As Dee became more proficient at belly breathing and rhythmic breathing while mounted on Sunny, we incorporated using the five senses to remain grounded in the present. She would notice the breeze blowing through her hair, the muffled clopping of Sunny’s hooves in the dirt, the feel of the bareback pad underneath her, the coarse texture of Sunny’s mane, and other sounds, smells, sights, and tactile sensations to stay present instead of dissociating. Using an EMDR protocol to visualize a positive template, Dee began imagining successfully leaving her apartment, driving to the grocery store, pushing her cart up and down the aisles and checking out. When she began to panic or dissociate, Sunny would sometimes come to a dead halt, or begin yawning and tensing her muscles. This lets both Dee and myself know that she was getting beyond her window of tolerance and needed to practice her relaxation and mindfulness skills to come back to the present. After several Rhythmic Riding sessions like this, Dee was able to do her own grocery shopping for the first time in a year.
The beauty of the Natural Lifemanship model is that no structured, pre-planned activities are necessary to address specific client issues such as these. They unfold organically when the therapist is willing to step back from being directive with an agenda and allow the client to build her relationship with the horse in her own way. I saw the power of this serendipity the first time Dee and I went out to the pasture to find Sunny. Dee was carrying a halter to lead Sunny to the round pen, and we discussed the difference between inviting someone to spend time with you vs. forcing them or manipulating them to do so, as we walked. It was clear as we discussed this concept of having choices in relationships that Dee had not experienced this freedom and spent a lot of time in coercive, abusive situations just trying to survive.
When she saw Sunny munching hay with other horses in the herd, Dee hesitated, not wanting to interrupt Sunny’s meal or take her away from the other horses. She stood off to one side of the round bale, holding the halter, head drooping, shoulders slumped, with an air of defeat. I asked her what she was experiencing at the moment and then the tears came. “Ignored. Invisible. Disposable. Worthless.” After letting her feel those emotions and where they came up in her body (constricted chest, cramps in her stomach), I asked how she would like to feel about herself. She answered immediately: “Worthwhile. Lovable. Significant.” I asked how that felt different in her body when she thought of those words. Her shoulders straightened up a bit and she lifted her head. “Energizing. My chest is opening up.” Sunny turned and looked at her for a bit before turning back to the hay. “What just happened?” I asked Dee. “Sunny looked at me,” Dee said in wonder. “What made her do that, do you think?” I asked. Dee shook her head. “What changed in you?” I persisted. “My feelings about myself,” she said. “How did changing your feelings about yourself affect your body?” I asked. “My energy changed,” she conceded. She seemed encouraged that Sunny had noticed her more positive body energy and acknowledged her presence, but was still hesitant to “interrupt” Sunny’s meal.
I asked Dee how spending time with Sunny might not just be good for Dee, but also for Sunny. We talked about how horses spend a great deal of time in their brainstem, or the survival part of their brain when they are with their herd. They react, rather than respond, to each other, which often involves biting and kicking to communicate and establish dominance. Giving Sunny opportunities to be in her neocortex, or the thinking part of her brain would help her develop a calmer, more responsive stance towards her herd, allowing her to problem solve rather than react defensively to the other horses. It also helps her have more positive relationships with humans, upon whom she relies for food, water, and care, which ensures a better quality of life for her as people will be more likely to treat her well if she can display cooperative and friendly behavior. When Dee could see that her request for connection from Sunny was actually beneficial for Sunny as well, and not just for Dee, she became more confident about requesting Sunny’s attention and began making clucking sounds and swinging the halter rope slowly from side to side. Sunny swung her head around a few times, but resumed eating every time. Dee turned away.
“What just happened?” I asked her. “She just wants to eat,” Dee responded glumly. “She is ignoring me,” I asked her what she would do when her daughter was little and wouldn’t get up in the morning for school. “Well, at first I would come in and stroke her forehead and let her know it was time to get up. If that didn’t work, I would pull back the covers a bit – she hated to be cold. Then I would turn on the light . . . sometimes I literally had to drag her to her feet to make sure she was fully awake!”
I told her she had just beautifully illustrated the principle of gradually increasing the pressure when her request was being ignored. I asked her what turning away from Sunny had done with the pressure. “Released it,” she acknowledged.
“What did that tell Sunny?”
“That her behavior is what I wanted.”
She turned back to Sunny and began asking for connection again by clucking and clapping her hands. Sunny turned to face her. Dee kept clucking and Sunny turned back around. “What did you do when Sunny turned to look at you?” I asked.
Dee thought a moment. “I kept clucking,” she said. “Oh, I didn’t release the pressure, did I?”
“Sunny didn’t know she had done the right thing because you didn’t release the pressure,” I agreed.
Dee went back to trying to get Sunny’s attention. Sunny flicked one ear back occasionally but otherwise kept eating. “I confused her,” said Dee.
We talked about how it’s o.k. to make mistakes in communication as long as we try to repair them. I asked her how she was going to let Sunny know that this relationship was important enough to Dee that she was willing to put in the work it required to have a good connection instead of giving up because she wasn’t getting immediate results. “Sunny isn’t going to care more about the relationship than you do,” I pointed out.
Dee had to increase her body energy (the pressure) quite a bit (clapping and then rhythmically swinging the halter rope helped to increase her body energy in a calm fashion) before Sunny finally turned around again. This time Dee stopped her movement and took a big step backward. Sunny took a step forward and Dee took another step back. Sunny blew out a big horsey raspberry at the same time as Dee exhaled loudly. We ended the session there. Dee was beginning to see how important it was for her to be consistent and committed to connecting with Sunny for them both to believe the relationship was worth having.
Frieda kicked out, ears back, black and white tail lifted high. She was clearly not happy about the pressure that Natural Lifemanship founder and Equine Professional Tim Jobe was putting on her to ask for connection. Tim explained that Frieda had spent the whole 12 years of her life occupying a pasture near a mobile home park, where the residents and their children petted her and gave her apples. No one had ever asked her for anything in return, until now. Frieda started out by pointedly ignoring Tim when he began asking for attachment. When he brought his body energy up a bit and made a smooching sound with his lips, she promptly burst into a frenzy of bucking and kicking as if in disbelief that he would continue to make this (in her mind) ridiculous request. I watched Frieda’s spirited display of resistance, which reminded me of a child’s tantrum, while Tim continued to keep the pressure the same by maintaining his proximity to Frieda no matter where she went in the round pen and directing the same amount of body energy from his core, directed now towards her side, in a request for detachment (connection with some space, or a boundary).
One of the training participants asked if it wouldn’t be better for Frieda to be allowed to just continue enjoying her peaceful life of being petted and given treats. Why should we upset her by requesting something clearly only we humans wanted, and she did not seem to value at all? I thought about this question. I generally avoid conflict, and it can be difficult for me to ask for things in a relationship that I know might be considered inconvenient or difficult for the other person to give. I sometimes settle for less than I should in a situation simply because asking for what I need feels “too hard.” I felt a bit sorry for Frieda too, actually. In the weeks that followed, I did a great deal of soul searching about this principle of the Natural Lifemanship model: If it is not good for both parties in the relationship, it is not good for the relationship itself. How was asking for a connection from a human or horse who seemed unwilling and unhappy about giving it still good for the relationship? I came up with the following reasons:
1. Experiencing a healthy connection enhances the quality of life
Both humans and horses experience better physical, emotional, and mental health when they know how to have a positive connection with others. Connection builds cross brain connections which allow for responding (making choices from the neocortex informed by the limbic system) instead of reacting (from the brainstem where the only options are fight, flight, or freeze). Horses who are able to access the thinking part of their brain engage in fewer skirmishes in the herd, resulting in a decreased risk of injury from being kicked or bitten. The experience of connection in a relational context releases dopamine in the brain, which creates a feeling of well being. Humans also benefit from healthy connection: research shows that people with a strong social support network live longer with fewer health problems than those who are more isolated.
Domestic horses depend on humans for food, shelter, and care. The more they can access their neocortex in cooperating with their human caregivers, the better their experiences with humans is likely to be. People respond more positively to friendly horses, keep them longer, and are able to give them the medical care they require if they are allowed to touch their ears, hooves, and other parts of the body to give medicine, as well as perform massage or other therapeutic touches. Horses who have not been helped to be comfortable with being touched all over their bodies may not receive the care they need when sick or injured. Reactive horses tend to have multiple owners and often end up in bad situations as people give up on trying to manage their behaviors. Connections between horses in the herd also change. Joey, a wild mustang at Spirit Reins, was not a part of the herd until clients began choosing him as their relationship horse. Now, Joey allows and engages in mutual grooming behaviors with some herd members. This has increased Joey’s safety and sense of well being as he becomes part of the herd.
3. Healthy connection heals trauma
Both humans and horses may avoid intimacy because they have learned that relationships are a source of pain rather than comfort. At some point, they may have decided that requests for connection will only lead to harmful interactions, and find ways to avoid intimacy as a form of self-protection. Healing this broken pathway through patient, persistent work on attachment and detachment results in restoring trust in relationships as a safe place to be both seen and known. Our deepest desire as humans is to be fully known and fully accepted. Trauma destroys any hope that this is possible. Inviting connection using the principles of pressure rewires the brain to have a different response, unfreezing the trauma and allowing it to process through for both horses and humans.
We can co-regulate with those whom we have positive, trusting relationships. Attunement in relationships allows us to give and receive comfort to each other. Any stressful situation immediately feels less overwhelming if we don’t feel so alone in it. Connection helps calm and soothe us when we are distressed.
Biologically we are driven towards connection. Both human infants and foals depend upon their mothers or early caregivers for survival and learn how to get their needs met either in positive or negative ways depending upon the environment they are born into. Even those who struggle with intimacy due to abuse or neglect experience a consistent conflict around the internal drive to seek connection while simultaneously fearing the result of doing so. On a primal level we know we need relationships to survive, so we set about creating the only kinds of relationships we know how to have which often results in a serial pattern of maltreatment and heartbreak. As we rewire the brain through a healthy connection we increase our capacity to experience positive emotions which results in a positive synergy: positive connection building more cross brain connections which build more opportunity for positive connection. Symptoms of anxiety and depression diminish as deeper and more satisfying connections are achieved.
While it can seem more benevolent not to initiate or persist in asking for connection with a being who appears disinterested or resistant, I realized that avoiding the work of connection indicates a devaluing of self, the other, and the relationship. I am not seeing that I have enough inherent value to make the request, or that the horse/human has enough value for me to pursue them. In other words, if I am more interested in self-protection than pursuing the relationship I am choosing the relative comfort of isolation over the deeper comfort of intimacy. I am essentially demonstrating that the relationship is not worth investing my time and energy in and that I am not willing to risk initially being ignored and/or rejected as I seek to build the relationship.
When Frieda eventually tired of galloping and bucking around the ring, she slowed down and seemed to consider Tim’s quiet, persistent request for connection. She stopped and swung her beautiful head toward him, wide-eyed and snorting, ears flicking back and forth. Tim immediately stepped back to release the pressure and let Frieda know that her choice was good for the relationship. Frieda considered for a few moments longer, then took that long-awaited step towards Tim. He stepped back a bit more. Frieda changed her mind a few more times along the way, going back to ignoring and resisting, before realizing that maybe attachment felt better than running away. By the end of the session, Frieda was walking comfortably alongside Tim, resting her head on his arm occasionally, and turning her big brown eyes to him as if to say that this was her idea all along. Frieda finally realized that a healthy connection can feel safe and enjoyable.