WRITTEN BY Bettina Shultz-Jobe, LPC, NBCC
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:
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.”