PTSD And Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
Mary, a 55 year old woman came to me to see if Equine Assisted Psychotherapy might be able to help her with the debilitating effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). She was dealing with PTSD as a result of having lived through a childhood filled with abuse and neglect.
Mary survived her childhood by becoming an over-achiever, always seeking new ways to heal the “hole in her soul” (her words), that the abuse created. These outer achievements, though they made her look good from the outside, did nothing to heal the real issues that had plagued her for as long as she could remember. Mary used a strategy that many individuals use to survive abusive environments: she “made up” in her young mind that the abuse occurred because there was something wrong with her. As a child, she learned to disconnect from her own thoughts and feelings. She excelled in school. Later in life, she continued to use this strategy of over-achieving and believed that if she could just get the right degree or certification or find the right person to marry, then she would be o.k. After three abusive marriages and a job loss, she had fallen into a place of hopelessness that she did not believe she would ever overcome.
This choice to perceive that the abuse occurs because there is something wrong with the child makes sense. It gives the child an illusory sense of control. The thinking goes like this: “IF THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH ME, THEN I HAVE CONTROL OVER ME. I CAN FIX ME AND THE ABUSE WILL STOP”. Of course, this thinking is false, but it enables the child to at least “survive” their childhood.
Mary had been to many therapists, mostly the “talking kind”. As a result, she had great insight into her abusive childhood. However, the talking therapies often cannot take one deep enough into their experience to truly heal. Mary tried EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy). What made EAP so special for Mary is the horse’s sensitivity and willingness to interact with humans. If horses are not in their herd, they are instinctively motivated to pay attention to what the humans are doing in their presence. In EAP, the client and the therapists (human and horse) work with the emotional response evoked by the animal-human interaction.
In the first session, Mary was feeling terrified of being so close to 1000 pound animals even though the horses were about 50 feet away from her happily munching their grass. Thus, the entire first session was about helping Mary breathe into her fear, be mindful of it and not to simply run away because she was feeling afraid. The strategy of fleeing when afraid, though it had worked, had kept Mary from being successful, both professionally, personally and relationally. At the end of the first session, Mary was able to approach a 4 year old horse that had been the outcast in the herd. When Mary heard this story, she became compassionate toward this horse. She had felt like an outcast and the compassion she felt actually enabled her to pet this horse on it’s side. The end result was she experienced her courage and she learned a way to also show compassion towards herself when afraid. This is one of the major benefits of EAP: experiencing feelings like fear and then actually doing different behaviors enabling one to translate these skills to real life.
EAP helps one experiment with fear in new ways other than to just run away. For example, fear, an appropriate response to a 1000 pound animal, presents an experiential opportunity to learn effective ways to maintain safety, set personal boundaries and be assertive while being mindful of the internal response of fear.
During the 2nd session, Mary was able to re-connect with the outcast horse for about 5 minutes. Then another horse came up to her. She immediately began to panic; the horse backed away. I asked her to breathe into her fear. As she did this, she asked me what she should do to keep this horse from hurting her. I explored different ideas with her. She asked me what this horse’s name was and who she was. This question also reflected that she was out of the “lizard”-brain (which tells us to flee, freeze or fight) and into the thinking part of her brain, the neo-cortex or “Wizard”-brain (which gives us options based on whether the threat is perceived or real). I explained that this horse was 30 years old and was a “grand-mother”-type horse that most of the horses loved and protected. This interaction made her cry because it reminded her of her own grandmother who had been the only adult who showed her love and compassion. She immediately went to pet “Maggie”, the older horse. So, again, Mary was able to deal with another experience of fear in a different way.
Mary came to 8 more sessions. The last session had her leading a horse that reminded her of herself through a herd of 20 other horses. She came away from this last session knowing that as long as she remains connected to her entire being: her thoughts, feelings, awarenesses and perceptions, she will know what to do in any given moment and therefore keep herself safe.
Mary was able to learn that the fear that came up every time she was around other humans was a triggered response that came from her “projecting” her woundedness outside of herself. She learned to do this as a child because a child’s young psyche cannot deal with the mass of human emotions that come up when a child is abused. She had to project these feelings out there just to stay sane. Through, EAP, she was first able to embrace her own fear, anger and sadness and then learn ways to be present to it and find ways to deal with it. As she did, she was creating new behavioral responses when these feelings came up. After 3 months of doing EAP every other week, she felt “new hope”, simply because she learned to be present to herself and then learned new ways of dealing with herself. Heretofore, she had been a hostage to her own psychology because she has projected her worst fears, her debilitating anger and sadness outside of herself which indeed made her a slave to her past. Because of the horses and their emotional honesty, Mary was able to be emotionally honest as well.
In conclusion, under the guidance of the EAP therapist, the client experiments with ways to deal with their issues. The way the horse responds directly and clearly to the client’s actions provides instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t. What results is a therapy in which the client can immediately experience the benefits of making changes. The insights gained through this work translate into practical life skills. Clients may gain greater self-confidence, improve their creative thinking and problem solving skills, enhance their understanding of personal responsibility and increase self-awareness. 95% of EAP takes place on the ground and should the client get on the horse, it is for a slow, guided walk in one of the last sessions.
About the Author
Suzanne Carter, M.A., L.P.C., is a Unity Minister, Licensed Professional Counselor, Equine Assisted Psychotherapist, Certified Spiritual Intelligence Coach, Grief Specialist and the best of all: Mother to Christopher, Sunny, Jessie and Harmony Click here to learn more about Suzanne