This was the seventh session for the client. She is an intellectually challenged twenty-one-year-old with the cognitive ability of a fifteen-year-old. She was referred to us by her career support center. She was having difficulty getting along with her coworkers and struggled with voice modulation when she stressed. She was raped by a cousin at the age of 6 and continues to live at home with a verbally and sometimes physically abusive brother and stepfather. Her goal was to improve having boundaries and better social skills. The MHP wanted to work specifically on boundaries as the client had been texting her incessantly in between sessions and on the weekends. This client’s sessions were an amazing example of how the horses always manage to give us what we need to successfully facilitate a session.
Typically, we do not feed treats during a session so the horses respect clients’ boundaries and know sessions are not a time for treats. Sometimes, we feed treats after the sessions outside the arena. Because of repeated texts and phone calls to the therapist and ES between sessions, we were making an exception letting the client feed the horses carrots as we caught them to bring them to the arena knowing full well there might be issues with boundaries. She had not been here in several weeks and the overall structure for the session was relationship and simply for the client to reacquaint herself with the herd. The therapeutic goal was to work on boundaries.
As we approached the herd in the pasture with carrots, the client got surrounded by them. She made a point to give each horse a carrot but stated she felt scared. In an effort to create both physical and emotional safety, the ES intervened non verbally by haltering each horse but we all led them into the arena. Once in the arena the horses gathered around the water bucket. The client weaved in and out of the herd, grooming them and picking out of clumps of dirt from their manes. The MHP and ES quietly retreated to observe the horses and SPUD’S. Focusing on observing the horses became an important skill that proved invaluable for not only this client but others as well.
The client had two sets of names for the 4 horses, individual names that reflected her adoration for them and alternatively, had identified one as herself, one who represented both her mother & grandmother, one who represented her stepfather and lastly, one who represented her brother. The treatment team made every effort to consistently switch back and forth, tracking with the names and different roles the horses played for the client. In the past, she had expressed frustration at her family’s demand to chauffer her brother around using her hard-earned gas money. As she was caring for the horses, you can see she was getting increasingly agitated observing her brother in her truck with the ignition on. She explained to us that she explicitly asked him not to sit in the truck and run the ac during her session as it would waste her gas that she pays for. She was actively saving up for a vacation to go visit an aunt out of state. She asked if she could go tell him to turn it off. The ES and MHP agree, and the ES non verbally assisted with the gate for both the client and the horses’ safety as the horses are gathered by the gate. The horses gently backed up and cooperated.
Upon her return, the horses had moved to the center of the arena. She approached her favorite horse, the one that represents herself, and the other horses took off rapidly in a circle. There was even some bucking among them. The client climbed up on the fence. This was a departure and discrepancy in the herd dynamic from previous sessions and there was some processing with the client around this shift in movement and discrepancy in the herd’s behavior. Three of the horses approached her calmly but the horse who represents her “brother” charges her and the herd. To keep the client safe, the MHP took her hand and walked her along fence line led by the ES to another part of the arena. The three horses stayed put but “the brother” kept charging her in a full-blown canter and stopping just short of her, only to return to the other end of the arena and do it again. The client backed up against fence and was cowering. The ES intervened and showed the visually shaken client and MHP how to “get big” by raising their hands and waving them in order to create physical and emotional safety. It gets the horse to back off somewhat but this continues until the end of the session. During all of this interaction, the client recounted the time her brother strangled her. The MHP tells the ES after the session the client was in a full-blown flashback however, in spite of that she did get the concept of protecting herself by getting “big”. While leading the horses back to the pasture*, the client articulated a huge metaphor and self-drawn correlation as to why boundaries need to be in place and respected. Because the team used the client’s words, the client was able to figure out her own solution thus meeting her treatment goals.
*The ES led the “brother” and “stepfather” horses back to the pasture, a non-verbal intervention.
On processing the movement of the horses, the focus was naturally on the discrepancy of the horses’ movements being much more than usual and the unique behavior of the horse charging. The client attributes the horse charging as a metaphor to her brother’s need to be the center of attention. Like her brother, that horse always wants something – water, a treat, attention, etc. It makes her mad that he always asks her to do stuff for him. Her brother gets angry at her stepdad and mom but he takes it out on her. The movement of the horse “stepdad” bucking symbolized her mom being intimidated and scared by her stepdad in real life to protect her even though it is her belief that her mother should.
Truthfully, there was a moment of much needed self-regulation for me in the above scenario. Major eye contact was happening between myself and my MHP. I knew she was experiencing a huge ‘S and was panicked. Ultimately, she trusted me to find a solution.
It is worth highlighting throughout this session there were three interventions, 3 non-verbal and one verbal for reasons of physical and emotional safety for the client, MHP and the herd. However, the horses were not prevented from making choices and we let them continue to tell the client’s story. The client was never given specific instructions or “dos or don’ts” but provided with the tools to feel empowered with her own skills and ability to go to solution.
At this juncture, advanced certification mentoring helped me immeasurably in identifying themes and creating flow from session to session. We reflected back on previous patterns regarding boundary issues which tied back to client’s therapeutic goals.
In the subsequent session, the team decided to make it about observation and relate, “let’s go get the horses and see what happens”. Boundary issues arose again because the client had arrived early, brought carrots again and fed the horses over the fence. She did participate in haltering the horses and bringing them to the arena. However, unaware, the client’s voice got very loud and she could not modulate her voice. During this transition she shared with the team that her brother had stolen her atm card and had drained her bank account but her mother and stepfather were going to reimburse her. She expressed frustration that there was no real consequence for her brother like involving the police. Once in the arena the horses started to eat leaves off the trees on the other side of the far fence. The client went over and helped the horses by pulling leaves off the trees and feeding it to them. The “brother” horse remained away from the other 3 horses throughout the session. The client placed her hands frequently on the “mother/grandmother” horse. In processing the metaphors that emerged repeatedly were hunger, leaves, getting money back and feeling betrayed.
After the team reviewed therapeutic goals, we decided to structure the following session incorporating movement, relationship and creating an activity focused on self-care. A non-verbal intervention was also decided upon beforehand by having the horses already in the arena when client arrived. We placed a different grooming tool in each corner of the arena as the client really enjoyed grooming and it seemed to regulate her. We asked her to label each corner a form of self-care, one corner represented going to the movies, another represented shopping for herself and her pets, another represented going to the dog park, and the last one was feeding grass to her uncle’s horses. There was little bit of confusion as to where to start and to pick only one horse to work with so there was a verbal intervention to remind her of both. Much to the surprise of the MHP and myself she selected the “brother” horse! The other horses stayed together in the middle of the arena.
We hung back and observed until the 4th station which had the brush for the mane and tail. She did the mane but when it came time to brush the tail, she wouldn’t do it. We approached her and asked what was up. She said the horse was unpredictable and would kick her. We asked “what does unpredictable look like?” and she explained it was like when her family started drinking and that is when she left their trailer and went to her own. As this talking was going on two horses approached, her “mother/grandmother” stood to the side of her “brother” and the horse that represented herself came and stood about 6 feet behind “brother”. We pointed this out to her in clean language by asking “who just came over? What’s that about?”. She said her horse would protect her and proceeded to brush her “brother’s” tail. At this point the “stepfather” horse came over only to have her horse flatten its ears and block it from coming near her. She was visibly moved and clearly thought her horse did this intentionally for her and said “I never had that before”. Her confidence visibly swelled and she proceeded to brush all the horses’ tails. When told the session would be ending soon, she decided to close session by giving the “brother” horse a kiss on the nose.
In the subsequent session, she reported that she had asserted herself with her family about no longer wanting to chauffer her brother. In the meantime, the MHP and myself stopped receiving texts and phone calls. Lastly, her referring agency reported she was having greater success interacting positively with her coworkers. She was able to start modulating her voice and express herself instead of getting angry.
As a result of writing this article, with two consultations with my mentor for guidance, I was able to reflect on session flow, type of sessions, and the importance of processing themes and metaphors. These were remarkable sessions for me as an ES. The conscientious use of clean language contributed greatly to the client gaining self-assurance and the belief the horses provided her with a level of protection she felt profoundly and needed in her life. Although, both non-verbal and verbal interventions were used the treatment team got out of the horses’ way so they could still make choices and tell the client’s story. Because of our self-awareness, we did not rescue the client but let things unfold without our interference ultimately bolstering the client’s self-reliance. Repeatedly, during our trainings and mentor sessions, we were told to trust the process, let the horses do the work, the horses will provide for us….the sessions epitomized the truth in those statements. YOU TRULY CANNOT MAKE THIS STUFF UP!