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Animals and Therapy

I started writing a post about this topic last week, and it ended up being a giant recap of the past six years of my life. You all really don’t need to know all that, so I’m going to start again. Heh.

I strongly believe that people are positively affected when in the presence of animals. Of course every case is different, but the base line is: Humans innately know that we actually co-exist on this planet with other sentient beings, and we actually like being around them. 

There is a huge variety of options out there of types of therapy. One of which is Animal-Assisted Therapy. Now, because I’m lazy and stealing internet that keeps cutting out, I’m not going to link to any articles or whatnot. Google is your friend. But basically, Animal-Assisted Therapy could be kids with handicaps swimming with dolphins, and it could mean there’s a dog in the office while you talk to someone about your day. In this case I’m not really intereted in the logistics or semantics. I’m interested in the concept of what it means for a person to be in the presence of a non-human animal. And since I’m all kinds of unprofessional, subjective, biased, and opinionated… this is completely coming from the point of view of someone who has always felt a kinship with animals. Apparently there are people who exist that aren’t so much fans of the non-humans… and I just don’t get that… (BUT I still think they benefit from AAT, just differently, to which I wouldn’t know so I won’t even go there)

In a group of people I am tense, anxious, awkward, and probably dissociating just enough to appear “normal but reserved”. 

In a group of people plus an animals/animals I am more alert, focused (usually on the animal/s), less awkward, though still probably stand-off-ish. 

Me with just an animal or a group of animals I am confident, assertive, calm, balanced. Even if the animal is having issues or pissed off or nasty or what have you. It’s okay, it’s not about me, it’s just happening and I will respond appropriately. 

Generally, I express myself much better through the written word than spoken word. Words sit in my mouth and sometimes they just refuse to leave… they’re happier being drained through my fingers (or telepathically, but that’s not very useful for the purpose of anyone understanding me). But I’ve come to notice that if I’m distractedly petting a dog, my brain is preoccupied just enough the filter shuts off and I can speak freely. Beneficial, for sure, unfortunately I don’t know anyone with a dog at the moment. (Oh, yes I do but toy breeds don’t count. Or… obnoxiously high strung pet store toy breeds don’t count, I should say.) Even if I’m not needing to make conversation, just being with dogs makes me feel better. I “get” dogs, dogs “get” me. 

I have a cat by the way. Claudia says hi. But for some reason I don’t get the same affect with cats. I certainly appreciate them, and enjoy their company but at least for me… they’re not therapeutic tools in the same regard. Do I feel better in general though, playing with friendly cats? Totally. Which is why I think animals are good for people regardless, in all settings to some degree. 

So dogs are good for me. But are they “therapists”? No. Maybe one in a million (Lassie!), but in general dogs make great friends and therapeutic tools, but not therapists. Why would I even say that? Because I do think horses have the capacity to be “therapists”. Not all horses, and not for all people, but there is a definite intuitive connection that horses are capable of… where they are facilitating interactions and are capable of drawing out in a person the issues they need to face within themselves. 

Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy was coined in the ’90s, and one of the first people to truly utilize this concept was Linda Kohanov. She runs Epona Farm and wrote the book The Taos of Equus, and it really took off from there. I think what she does is fantastic, but the fact she now charges eleventy billion dollars for everything because she’s “the original brand” kind of sucks. Anyway.

The official definition of EFP is experiential psychotherapy that includes equine(s).  It may include, but is not limited to, a number of mutually respectful equine activities such as handling, grooming, lunging, riding, driving, and vaulting. EFP is facilitated by a licensed/credentialed mental health professional working with an appropriately credentialed equine professional. 

That’s the lame definition that limits the true interaction that can be had with horses. (umm… bare with my New Age-y musings, k thanks) I like this definition:

Equine Facilitated Life Coaching or Psychotherapy is an emerging field and exciting new modality. The relationship between horse and person can support the individual, couple, family or groups’ emotional growth, learning and healing. It involves a collaborative effort between a facilitator, a client and a horse.

Participants learn about themselves and their relationship to others by being in relationship to the horses, participating in activities with the horses and then by processing their thoughts, feelings, behaviors and patterns.

It is an embodied, experiential and less verbal modality often useful for clients less responsive to traditional personal development approaches or therapies and you may even have fun in the process. 

That’s actually from Jackie Lowe Stevenson’s website. I had one private session with her years ago, and went to a few workshops at her place. Her herd is so well balanced, back then she had Jetset (who passed in 2005), Rojo, Thunderheart, and Spirit. Spirit was the newest and by far the youngest member of the herd. Now she has a few additions which is nice to hear. I learned something from each of her horses, because her horses were experienced in helping people. They also were living… they were being… most horses don’t get that luxury. Most horses are pets, performers, or packers… and they usually spend most of their days in solitary stalls.

Each of Jackie’s horses taught me, or rather they reminded me, of these essential things:

  • breathing is important
  • it’s good to be assertive
  • it’s essential to have fun and play
  • and it’s okay to sit back and observe. 

There are several ways to explain this. I read each horses body language and how they interacted with each other and with humans. Sure, of course. But there is a deeper level of understanding and acceptance. A connection with I felt and intuitively translated, rather than simply an objective observation of behaviors. 

As for horses I have worked with and been the caretaker of in the past, lessons have certainly been learned through them. Something that is unique about horses is that they will always, always mirror whatever you’re feeling not expressing. If you’re acting confident but inside you’re really anxious, the horse is going to act out. If it’s the horses nature to be anxious they will, but if it’s the horses nature to be an asshole… he’ll mirror your anxiety with more aggressive behaviors… but it’s still coming from you, not him. This is why I think working with horses can be so beneficial for people with eating disorders. They make you pay attention to yourself. It’s imperative, or the relationship will go nowhere, fast. (Which is an ultimately dangerous situation, because horses average out at 1,000 pounds. Trust me, I’ve been dragged, thrown, and run over because I wasn’t present. Not so fun!)

To take this back around, even just being in the presence of horses whether meant as a therapeutic transaction or not, is beneficial. Because like I said, you have to BE PRESENT, or else you’ll get fucked over. I just read this blog and love it. This woman works with people and horses, healing both. I love that, that used to be my career goal. (Honestly, I have no idea how I got to where I am, it’s not “me” whatsoever… but that’s another story) She basically says that to be able to heal/help/work with people or animals you yourself have to be balanced and not take in any outside anxious energy. Which got me thinking about how with animals, I’m not an anxious person… I’ve only come to notice how incredibly anxious I am lately… and I think a lot has to do do with not being hands on with animals anymore. I mean, from college until I moved here I was in some way working hands on with animals, either horses or dogs. Now I sit in an office all day working on the internet dealing with interpersonal relationships and business things I don’t really care about (in a broad sense, I care about it in the immediate sense!) and I think that shift has made me all the more unbalanced and unlike myself. 

And I’m not saying I was never anxious or angry or unbalanced when I worked with the animals, because I totally was. But they helped me notice it, and manage it, and let it go. I miss that, and the next time I’m working with animals again, I will not take it for granted.

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