We have had the honor to work with a family this summer that needed some new ideas and skills in order to be safe and successful. This blog is based on the parent’s testimonial and confirms, once again, that traditional forms of therapy are not a good fit for everyone.
One of our clients, a nine year old girl, was in behavioral therapy with another provider. Her behavior prior to coming to Chinook Horses was stressful and concerning – she was unable to recognize when she was getting angry and would escalate very quickly. She would throw and kick things, and her mother felt unsafe when this happened. “Anything could set her off. My job was to get her back down so she didn’t hurt me or her younger brother.” But she observed that her technique for calming her daughter seemed to be creating more trauma. She needed another way to help her daughter and for her daughter to develop the skills needed to emotionally self-regulate.
Our client was fostered and subsequently adopted by her current mother several years ago. This past year after many violent, emotional outbursts at school, resulting in a suspension, and aggression at home, her daughter shared that she had been sexually abused in her past. However, she did not want to discuss it. In therapy, she avoided talking about it and instead played board games with her therapist. Her behavior was not improving at home. “She wasn’t going to talk about it in a traditional therapy center,” her mother recalls. It was recommended that she try Chinook Horses; equine-assisted therapy because it might offer a different sort of distraction while she talked about her feelings.
Our client began individual Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy sessions with the goal of exploring her trauma. Eventually, her mother augmented her therapy with Equine-Facilitated Learning, an approach that uses social thinking rules and tools and the Zones of Regulation (created by Leah M. Kuypers and Michelle Garcia Winner) with small groups of children. The Zones were created to support people with emotional self-regulation by categorizing the different ways we feel into four color zones.
Since her daughter started equine-assisted therapy with Chinook Horses, her mother reports a remarkable decrease in escalating episodes of anger. In fact, all summer, she only had one episode of loss of control (kicking and throwing things). Her mother explained that equine specialist Abigail Hornik and therapist Kyanne Wear taught her about a triangle in which thoughts, feelings and actions influence and feed off of one another. Using this information during the episode, the mother remained calm and walked her daughter “through the triangle” – identifying her thoughts, naming her feelings, and describing her actions. Afterwards, she asked her daughter, “What can I do to help you get back to where you need to be?” Abigail worked with the mother weekly to help her acquire the tools she needed in order to support her child.
The second time this summer when her daughter became angry, rather than throwing things, she stated her feelings, “I’m mad – I’m in the Red Zone”, went to her room, closed the door, and colored until “she cooled off and came out when she was ready.” Her mother told her she was really proud of her for handling her anger in that way. She sees that over the course of this summer, she has been less involved in guiding her daughter to identify her thoughts and feelings, and her daughter has begun to recognize when she is becoming angry and find a safe space in which she can calm herself down.
When asked about the role of the equine partners in her daughter’s therapy, she said that they were not doing what her daughter wanted them to do. “Horses are individuals not wanting to give her what she wanted. She had to problem solve; she had to think about what they needed before they would do what she wanted them to do.” She tried luring them with branches of leaves to eat, but she quickly realized she could not make them do things. She was learning through them about how she felt. One day the horses did not comply with her group’s plan. She told her mother after the session, “I hate horse therapy.” When her mother asked her why, she replied, “Because the horses don’t do what I want them to do….I never get to do anything.” Her mother asked her how that made her feel. “I’m really angry. I’m frustrated.” The conversation explored ideas around working hard, trying something different next time, and not taking the easy way out by giving up and walking away. After thinking about this, her daughter asked if her biological mother had taken the easy way out, had given up.
While her daughter still hasn’t opened up about her trauma, her mother reports that “she‘s working on creating a safe space to be angry without blowing up,” which has been life-changing at home. “I would recommend Chinook Horses without hesitation,” she said. She is grateful to the program for meeting her daughter where she was at and helping her to identify her feelings and understand how they relate to her thoughts and actions. She also acquired some essential skills to support her daughter and cheer her on.