As a mental health professional, it is important to find a therapeutic approach that benefits the clients that you work with. It is also important to find an approach that fits your personal style well. During my journey as a professional, I have found that I enjoy working with those that have experienced trauma. I have been trained in a trauma-based therapy known as EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR was designed to decrease the emotional response to traumatic memories and sensations in the present by utilizing eye movements. I have come to really enjoy this and find it deeply rewarding to help others through their trauma. I have also received training in EAP/EAL, or Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning. Equine therapies utilize the presence of a horse to provide an additional therapeutic tool for clients. For the past two years, I have worked at an inpatient treatment facility for those struggling with substance use disorders. There is one story that always comes to mind where I was able to witness both therapeutic approaches intersect with one another in a powerful way. I hope to highlight how a particular horse we use for therapy at this center worked through trauma of her own to find a new purpose in life through the story below.
The first time I laid my eyes on her she stood with her head low tied to the hitching post. It seemed that she was carrying a heavy burden rather than resting.
The thought crossed my mind, “This might be the ugliest horse I have ever laid my eyes on.” Her old age had started to show well before this moment. Her spine was long, showing some of her thoroughbred genetics, and her legs were thin and resembled 4 wooden stilts. Her withers, the highest point of her spine between the front shoulders, was high and exposed. She also had a sway in her lower spine that added to her poor confirmation. Her head was long and thin. On top of all this, she had lost some weight the previous winter and was just now back to her normal weight.
“She’s not much to look at, but I promise you that she’s a good ol’ riding horse.”
My colleague’s comment snapped me out of my judgmental thought stream.
“Really? Because from here it looks like she can barely stand properly,” I replied.
“Well, she is 30 years old. And she has a long history of trauma. She has some serious PTSD, but I have managed to work her through it. She’s still got some miles in her.”
In the horse world, 30 years old is ancient. Horses live 30 years on average, so this old bird was at the end of her lifespan. This added more to my initial distaste. My colleague went on to tell me of her past.
“Before she came to us, she had some pretty severe abuse. Apparently, someone used to tie her to a post and beat her mercilessly.”
I felt my gut turn as he recounted the events to me. I also felt a wave of anger wash over me and my face flushed. This poor animal didn’t deserve such treatment.
Against my better judgement, I decided to take his word and I saddled the horse for a trail ride. I brushed her down and began the process of getting her ready for the trail. I was shocked at her steady and sweet disposition. She looked around at me as I brushed her, but her body language displayed a sense of calm. I breathed in deeply myself. I had no idea I was carrying that much tension. Horses have a way of drawing out what lies within.
I finished gearing her up and climbed into the saddle. I settled in. We started toward the trail and everything in me began to recalibrate into the present moment. The light cool breeze hit my face and the sun beamed down on my shoulders. I felt sweat rolling down my back and I breathed deep. The scent of pine pulled me further into the moment. As I took in a breath, the horse breathed deep and cleared her nostrils releasing endorphins as she continued her stride.
I was blown away by her steadiness and her smooth stride. She walked with confidence and never showed the least bit of hesitancy toward her surroundings or me. We continued down the trail and came to a considerably steep hill. I squeezed my feet to her side and leaned forward. The horse stepped off into a trot and then a lope. She and I became one as we moved together. My heartbeat increased as my eyes focused on the top of the hill. She moved flawlessly. As we topped the hill, I slowed her down and rubbed the side of her neck in approval. I was completely blown away.
We continued the ride and soon ended up back at the barn. I stepped off of her as my colleague approached.
“Well, how did she do?”
I quickly replied with enthusiasm, “This is literally one of the smoothest riding horses I have ever ridden!”
“I told you that she was a really good one!”
He and I stood for a while and discussed how he had worked with her and her trauma. He recounted to me how he desensitized her to the stimuli that she was extremely fearful of.
After our conversation, I sat for a while and thought deeply about my experience and about his work with this horse. The process of desensitization that he described is very similar to the one that I use in my work with people through approaches like EMDR. I have seen many people struggling with traumatic experiences and find themselves almost unable to move forward. They usually ask me things like, “Will I ever get through this? I feel that I will never recover.” They seek reassurance from me that they will return to being “themselves” again. I can never make promises that someone will return to how they were before the trauma, but I have seen people recover and move forward.
As with the horse, we never know how our trauma can shape us for something in the future in our lives, or how we can be shaped to help others afterwards. In the case of this horse, she now works at an inpatient facility helping those with trauma and substance use disorders. We tell her story to provide hope and to also open the door for people to learn about trauma-based therapies. If she can find the strength to trust again and live, we can too. Trauma can seem like the defining moment of our lives that can be crippling, but it can also redefine us for a deeper and greater purpose. I would never minimize how difficult trauma and recovery can be, but I propose that trauma can redefine us for something greater in our lives. We just need the courage to work through it and find ourselves again.
In the horse world, if you get thrown from a horse, the rule of thumb is to get up and get back on quickly. This is the best policy for the horse and for yourself. But easier said than done. John Wayne said it best, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” Sometimes that is exactly what working through trauma looks like. It is being scared to death to face that which knocked you off of the path of life, but finding the courage to face it again.
If you have experienced trauma, I implore you to “get back on the horse” and live life again. The world needs you and life after is possible. It may even turn out to redefine your life for a greater purpose.
If she can do it, you can too.
Wesley Bell, P.-L.P.C.