• Welcome to the HEARD: Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

    by  • November 2, 2011 • Featured, News, Personal Stories

    A year ago, if you had told me that a trio of horses would change my entire outlook on life, I most likely would have looked at you with quizzical eyes, which I would have proceeded to roll and added, “Yeah, right!”

    But last Spring, a group of three horses actually DID manage to change my whole outlook on life.  This is how it went…

    I am a psychotherapist, and in order to maintain my license I must complete a certain number of CEUs (Continuing Education Units) every year.  This year, I decided to collect my hours by doing something out of the ordinary. I signed up for a three-day workshop on Equine Assisted PsychotherapySo that is how I happened to take a plane to Colorado one Wednesday evening in early May, following my day of work.

    It was sunny and comfortable in L.A. when I left.  I was wearing a pair of paddock boots, jeans, a t-shirt and a fleece sweatshirt.  I had packed a raincoat just to be safe.  I arrived in Denver at 9:30 pm, smack in the middle of a snowstorm!!  It was 30 degrees and the visibility was terrible.  I rented a compact car and in the middle of the night, drove an hour to a little hotel near the training site.  I checked in, got my key and carefully entered my room.

    I had planned to share a room with two other training attendees I’d never met.  They were asleep.  I quietly put my suitcase down, undressed and settled into bed, exhausted from the stressful drive.  Boy, did I feel proud!  Look at me, I’d travelled all this way, in a storm, going to sleep next to people I don’t even know, and I’m not even scared or anxious!  What a tough chick I am!!!

    The next morning, I awoke to meet Susan, an Equine Specialist, and Sheri, a psychotherapist.  We had an instant connection, the kind where you wonder if you had met this person before, maybe in a previous life?

    We proceeded to the training.  It was a cold, cold day.  There were about forty of us in a big covered riding arena, sitting on little plastic chairs and covered with extra blankets.  The ranch was gorgeous, but it was freezing cold!  In attendance were three horses roaming about.

    We proceeded with the general introductions and I, of course, was the first to stand and share with all those in attendance that I was hard of hearing and that I needed them to look at me when they spoke and raise their hand so that I could see who was speaking.  Deaf Assertiveness 101.  For sure, that earned me the love of the entire audience… NOT! This room was nearly all psychotherapists, but soon enough, my roommates began hearing snide comments such as, “Well, I’d like to sit at the front, too!”  Of course, I was oblivious to their words, not being able to hear!

    Life was all good…until I raised my hand to participate.  Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is experiential by nature: we focus on the emotions that emerge when doing an on-the-ground activity with the horses.  (The most common types of therapy are solution-focused or cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, which focus on your thought process; however, experiential-oriented therapy focuses on the emerging feelings in the moment.)  So, I get up and volunteer with 9 other participants, feeling nervous because I might not be able to hear or follow directions, but thinking, “What is the worst that can happen?  I could get trampled by a horse, I guess.”  In retrospect, I think it would actually have been less painful if I had ended up being trampled.

    Instead, I ended up crying. “When it rains, it pours,” goes the saying—but in my case, it was more like “when it rains, there is a typhoon.”  It turned out that the exercise with the horses raised so many feelings of inadequacy and hurt that I did not know what to do with myself.  I’d thought that over the years I had handled my late deafness, that I’d made it past the grief and found my place in the world.

    Twenty minutes of work with the horses proved I’d been kidding myself all these years.

    And it felt as if the horses knew it: like me, they were looking for an exit from the ring the entire time.  I realized that my life had always been about the destination, never about the journey.  If I get this job, then I will be worth it; if I get this degree, then I will be better; if I write a book then I will be someone, and on and on… but the bottom line is, no matter what I accomplish, no matter how many people validate me and no matter how much I am loved, it is obviously never enough, because deep inside I still feel broken and a misfit, forever unhappy.

    It also brought back many suppressed memories from my childhood.  I was totally overwhelmed.  I cried a whole night and half the following day.  I could neither stop nor verbalize my feelings.  I felt ravaged, dazed and disoriented.

    Then, on the afternoon of my last day in Colorado, when the tsunami seemed to be receding, leaving merely a storm to rage within me, this huge draft horse found me sitting on a chair in the big arena.  He was the only blind horse there, and he picked the only person in the group who had a disability.  He placed his muzzle on my shoulder, and stayed there for a few long minutes as if to say “I feel your hurt, I feel YOU, just bear with me, it is going to be ok.”  As people all around were watching me cry (most likely wondering what on earth was wrong with this deaf woman!) I felt my inner eye open.  I felt I was finally on the path to self-acceptance.

    I am sure some of you are wondering what it is that I did with the horses that had such an impact on me, what’s an inner eye, and really, what is it about the horses?  Well, it would be too lengthy to describe the exercise.  You pretty much have to try it to understand it.  The one thing I can explain is that horses are prey animals—hyper-vigilant by nature, on constant alert to potential predators and to the dynamics of their herd.  Thus, they have evolved a fine-tuned ability to read their environment—and by extension, the body language and energy of people.  (Scientists theorize that they possess a surfeit of mirror neurons.  Those are what cause us to flinch in sympathy when we see a stranger stub her toe.)  The horse becomes a mirror to your affect and emotions, reflecting your mood, preventing you from ignoring inconvenient feelings.  If you’re game to try, this interplay opens a window onto a suppressed part of you, revealing keen insights into yourself.

    Last May in Colorado, I felt ‘heard by the herd,’ and it was one of the most profoundly positive, life-changing experiences of my 35 years.  After struggling with my hearing loss for over half that time, I came to accept who I am, to revel in the now and the moment, and even, at last, feel compassion for myself.