WRITTEN BY Greer Swiatek
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.