April 4, 2019

From MerriBeth Vaughn, LPC, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy Program Manager, Forward Stride

On a Thursday evening the barn is quiet at Forward Stride. Lessons are done, the horses have been fed, and most people have headed home for the night. This is when Stable Ground, an Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy group, begins. A small group of women gathers in the arena for a structured check-in and introductions. Tonight is the first night of a new round of this 10-week Women’s Trauma Recovery Group. Our topic for the evening is “Safety and Grounding.” The women each have a binder for the handouts they will get each week. This week they are introduced by the therapist to some information about trauma and PTSD, as well as a handout about building a relationship with your horse. But for this group the handouts are not the focus. The women are encouraged to take their binders home and read the handouts before next week. For now it is time to move on to the main attraction, the horses.

Learning About Communication

We head out to one of the pastures for “herd observation.” The group spends a few minutes watching a group of horses interact in their natural environment. The Equine Specialist (ES) gives them some basic information on how horses communicate with each other, how their herds are structured, and how horses, as prey animals, interact with the world. Horses are very attuned to tiny non-verbal communications. They communicate with each other by the flick of an ear, the direction of their gaze, or the swish of a tail. People often think that horses have a sixth sense or that they can “read emotions”. The truth is they are just very, very observant of human non-verbal communication and they react with complete honesty to what they read from a person. Horses are also very concerned with knowing who is in charge so that they know who to look to in an emergency. If you have ever heard of “horse play” you know that horses can be rowdy in their interactions with each other. This is so they can figure out who their leader is.  The leader is the one who will look out for the welfare of the whole herd. They will keep an eye out for threats and they will let the rest know if there is a lion or some other threat (perhaps a plastic shopping bag) that they might need to run away from. The women are given a chance to share their observations and ask questions. There is usually some laughter, sometimes some concern about the horses chasing or nipping one another, and there are always questions. The ES and the therapist talk with the women about ways that they can be both physically and emotionally safe in group.

Meeting the Horses

The group heads back to the arena while the ES and her trained team of volunteers go get the horses. The group learns a five senses grounding exercise and has a chance to practice as a group while the horses are being brought in. This is the moment when excitement starts to build, as the horses arrive. A white Andalusian mare with a long mane and tail and a kind face is brought in. A small red horse with a sturdy build and dainty feet, two Norwegian Fjords who look like the horses from the movie Frozen, and an Appaloosa gelding with a mottled grey coat. The faces light up as each woman spots her horse that she met at her intake. The ES gives a short lesson on grooming and the therapist reminds everyone to practice their newly learned grounding skill as they move to brush their horses. Sometimes there is talking, laughing, or questions, but as the minutes tick by the overall mood is stillness.

Screening and Intake

Each participant in group was screened for trauma symptoms and completed an intake before group began. They were carefully matched with their equine partner and were asked for feedback on the match before the horses were finalized. Some participants have had previous experience with horses, but some have never touched a horse before their intake.  Ages range for group from women in early adulthood to women in retirement. And the traumas that have brought them here are as varied as the individuals themselves. What they all have in common is a desire to heal and a willingness to give up an evening a week to come to the barn. The curriculum includes elements of trauma treatment that would be familiar to most therapists, but the experiential approach brings the participants into the moment and the relationship with the horses deepens the work they are doing. Topics include: Road to Recovery and Compassion; Self-Compassion and Growth Mindset; Integration; Honesty and Vulnerability; Triggers and Anger; Commitment; Healthy Boundaries; Meaning Making; and Creating Closure. Some weeks the women lead their horses through obstacle courses, sometimes they learn a skill such as how to massage the horse, and other weeks they may paint on the horses or some other activity that helps them to learn through use of metaphor. Throughout the group the bonds between group members grow as well as the bonds between each woman and her horse.

Saying Goodbye

The last week of group is always emotional. The women will have been together for ten weeks and they have gotten to know each other well. They give each other affirmations and encouragement to take away from group. Everyone is given time to read a letter to their horse and ample time to say goodbye. For some people this may be a rare chance to say a healthy and thoughtful goodbye to someone that they care about. In the last week the focus will be on the future and on what their next steps will be going forward. Some participants will go on to volunteer at the barn to help with horse care and riding lessons, others may continue on with individual Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy sessions, and some may say goodbye to Forward Stride, at least for now. No matter what they do next, this group will stick with them and they will all leave with a photo of their equine friend to remind them of this time.

If you would like more information about Forward Stride’s Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy Program, check out our website or email efp@forwardstride.org.