I came across an interview with Bessel van der Kolk, who is one of my inspirations when it comes to treating trauma. As I read it, I noticed that it outlines most of what I do in my Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy practice. It does not include attachment which is one of the keys in my experience, but the Four Concrete Steps for Working with Trauma is a great article. I have included a link to the article at the bottom of the page. As I read the piece I was inspired to share how these four steps are used in my EAP practice.
Before I dive into these four steps, I feel it’s important to state that our herd is seen as co-therapist. Our experiments and experiences are done in relationship with our horses and never “to them”. They are not tools for us to use, rather partners in healing.
Number one is self-regulation. “The issue of self-regulation needs to become front and center in the treatment of trauma.”, Dr. van der Kolk.
Most trauma clients, and truthfully, a large percentage of my clients, struggle with self-regulation. In the beginning, simply taking a few breaths, and extending their exhale, can shift their emotional state. Bringing awareness to how they feel prior to taking breaths and then afterwards, gives my clients an opportunity to see that they are not powerless and can modulate arousal. Controlling breathing in this way triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to come online and counter our sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response to daily stresses or trauma responses. In effect, the relaxation response is the anti-fight or flight response.
One way I create this experience, is instructing my client to lean into her horse partner, placing her body against the horse’s belly, and matching her breath to her horse. This creates an opening for her to relate to her horse through touch, it slows down her breath, and allows for connection to self and horse. Another way to have this experience is through your legs while mounted. I’ll instruct my client to focus on her legs, feel the horse's breath through her legs. Often times with trauma, clients state that they can’t feel their legs and therefor not the horses breath. I then suggest to imagine feeling it and start to follow it. Weather the client consciously feels their partner's breath or not, the results are very similar. Their breathing slows down, and energy is brought into their body.
I love watching the response from the horses when we do experiments like this. Often there is a big exhale, some licking and chewing and lowering of the head. If this doesn’t happen, and the horse walks away mid experiment, we work with that. Trust your herd, and allow them space to lead the session.
Next week, I will write about the second step, self-empowerment. If you have any questions, or would like support with your EAP practice, please contact us.