This is the second article in a series inspired by an interview with Bessel van der Kolk. In my practice I see a lot of trauma clients and his Four Concrete Steps for Working with Trauma is a great outline for the work we do and teach at IEAP.
“The core of trauma treatment is something is happening to you that you interpret as being frightening, and you can change the sensation by moving, breathing, tapping, and touching (or not touching).” Bessel van der Kolk
When you have a traumatic experience you are a victim of circumstances and depending on your reaction to the event, your brain and body change. The second step in treating trauma is shifting from being a continuous victim of what your brain and body perceives as danger and learning that you are, to some extent, in charge of your physiological system.
In the first step, self-regulation, I spoke to breath work, and sharing breaths with a horse. Creating this experiment for your client gives them an opportunity to self regulate and also brings them closer to self empowerment.
I cannot speak about empowerment without touching on the vast difference in feeling powerful and having “power over”. We do not need to have power over another being to be powerful. “Power over” comes from fear, and when working with trauma, perpetuating fear, could be damaging.
In my practice, and at IEAP, we work from a relationship perspective. Moving a horse without being in contact with him, does nothing but create separation. Horses just like people, are not tools to be exploited for our own gain.
When taking this approach, we do a lot of work around creating opportunities for clients to be in contact with their equine partner. Most clients have no idea what being in contact is and how they experience it. Often times with trauma clients, contact is frightening, which is why it is much easier to do with a horse than a human.
So here’s a way to work on self-empowerment in an EAP session.
Place a horse or two in an arena or round pen prior to your client arriving. Instruct her/him to enter the arena, very slowly walk towards a horse and stop when she notices any physical changes or emotional shifts, or when the horse makes a noticeable change. At that time ask her/him what they are aware of (in the moment). If there is arousal, have them take some deep breaths with extended exhales, move their body to where they can feel relaxed. Maybe that means outside the arena. The goal here is for your client to notice changes, have an opportunity to shift and through that experience feel in control. Maybe your client will make it all the way to a horse, maybe not. The experiment is about self empowerment through awareness of internal shifts and taking effective action. Contact with the horse will be the next step but this cannot be achieved without the client first having an experience of themselves in their environment.
As a therapist, be aware of what your horses are doing. Let them guide the session and listen to what they have to say. Keep creating experiments based on the information they are giving you.
There are infinite exercises that can be done on or off the horse with your clients, many that will help instill self-empowerment and heal trauma. If you are interested in training and mentoring, contact our office.