The Six Key Progression

The following excerpt is a compilation of vignettes included in each chapter of The Listening Heart used to illustrated the progression through HEAL’s Six Keys to Relationship.

For this client, as with other case illustrations in this manual, I have changed the name and the session details to protect the privacy of the client.   It is my intention to represent such illustrations accurately without disclosing any personal information pertaining to an actual client.

In the next six chapters, we follow the progress of two different clients who have participated in therapeutic experiences at the HEAL Ranch. I have selected these vignettes from actual client sessions, to represent a “typical” progression through a course of therapy, which is very different for these two clients… Tina was a participant in an adolescent group PTSD program, which met during one summer for seven sessions (weekly) of three hours per session. Tina was 14 years old, and one of five girls who participated in that group. She was waif-like and withdrawn, appearing at least two years younger than her given age and very thin.

At the time of her treatment Tina’s symptoms were acute and overlapped with the developmental demands of an intensely dynamic life stage – puberty. Her sense of safety and worth seriously compromised by abuse, Tina lacked the building blocks for neurosequential personality development and social success. Tina was falling behind her peers in many ways. The goal of our group treatment was to provide targeted, vivid experiences that would readily internalize as resources and skills.

The PTSD groups, although they are purposely kept small and are designed as more of a ‘learning’ rather than ‘therapy’ experience, demand a high level of professional experience, and are challenging to conduct. At times particular clients may become dissociative, helpless and frightened, or angry. This emotion easily becomes contagious to other group members and the horses. It is important to respond to the client in intense emotional distress in ways that soothe as well as contain, allowing the client a new experience. The horse can be an important ally in this containment…

 

The First Key: Body-based awareness

In the first session of our PTSD group, we educated the group of adolescent girls about Key One, and the importance of tuning in to their own senses and feelings, for safety with the horses. Tina’s level of anxious arousal was obviously outside of her ‘window of tolerance’. While the other girls participated in the group discussion and got to know each other on breaks, Tina curled into herself, arms crossed around her middle. Tina wouldn’t speak to us and ignored our directives for group activities. Our team’s attempts to engage her only made her sullen. I wondered that first day if Tina would be able to keep up with the group as the horse activities became more complex.

After the classroom activity, participants went out to “meet the herd”— assigned with tracking their subjective “activation” level (activation with either positive or negative responsive feelings) as they met six horses (separated in individual paddocks). When the girls met the horses from across a fence (no touching, yet), it was apparent that Beau was drawn to Tina. Tina did not move on to meet other horses, but stood frozen as if soaking up Beau’s penetrating gaze (Beau ignored every girl but Tina). The emotional resonance was palpable. Tina denied feeling anything, but when the other girls gently teased her: He liked you! Tina suppressed a slight smile and determinedly kept her eyes downward. I considered this mutual attraction (resonance) as I planned to pair each girl with a horse. Beau is our most rambunctious horse, and Tina the most fragile client in this group, nonetheless I decided to trust the horse and I paired Beau with Tina for the remaining weeks of group sessions…

The Second Key: Boundaries

In the second session, the arena was full with five inexperienced (and affectively labile) girls handling horses on lead lines. A few of the girls would simply merge with the horse if they could; conversely, one girl was very afraid. Tina, however, was apathetic, withdrawn. We focused on Key Two, Boundaries. Team member David kept a watchful eye on Tina and Beau. Beau has a habit of playful head-rubbing, and right off the bat he almost knocked Tina off her feet with a turn of his head. David showed Tina how to “block”— when Beau gave a sideways glance Tina learned to hold her hand up in the signal that says, “watch out for me”. Tina had to watch Beau, too, in order to be timely with her signal. Soon Tina and Beau were communicating, and he settled beside her. Over and over girl and horse practiced this simple boundary interaction, as if it were ultimately absorbing for both of them.

Such a simple move, but between Tina and Beau a palpable bond was forming. But would it be enough to help Tina succeed with her peers?…

 

The Fourth Key: The Play of Yin and Yang

By the time we came to group session four (of seven), the girls handled their horses on lead lines out in a field, each girl challenged to hold her horse’s attention on the lush, tempting grass. Tina was struggling that day, but not with Beau. She was mad at everyone wearing a human costume, meanwhile ignoring Beau who waited beside her. He, unlike the other horses, was not tempted to graze. He looked worried — was he able to sense Tina’s foul mood?

We were exploring assertiveness with Key Four, Yin and Yang — and the work on “Not Grazing” is prelude to an exercise called “Knocking on the Door”. To “Knock on the Door” each girl, individually, releases her horse into the large outdoor round pen, first allowing it to graze at liberty, then approaching the horse to request its full attention, without touching. On this day, the first four girls were successful in commanding (not forcing) their horse to return to them.

Then it was Tina’s turn. Several times, Tina “knocked” and Beau “answered”, but each time just as he turned toward Tina, she was already looking away with a shrug. Beau became confused, then less responsive. Time started to drag. The agency van arrived and was waiting to take the girls back to the mental health center. I felt myself pushing, unwilling to let her “fail” — so I backed off, leaving it up to her, and Beau. I could let them be accountable to each other.

Suddenly I felt Tina get mad (in my gut I felt it!), then she shot me a look that could kill. She marched toward Beau. His head snapped up. And this time, Tina responded to him by softening her energy, letting her breath out, and stepping backward (the energetic “draw” that invites the horse). Beau came toward her, quietly and carefully.…

 

Key Five: New Pathways

Tina was truly with us after her difficult fourth session. In the 6th session, the adolescent group took a hike with the horses ‘in hand’ (on lead lines). The excitement was contagious. The horses were on high alert, with “their girls” out in the wide world. Key Five, New Pathways, feels quite literal in this activity! Tina did not remain unmoved by the sunny day; her shoulders opened and her legs worked in the long grass. A watchful yet obedient Beau marched in tandem with her. In the line of walking horses, the hoofbeats felt like a drum. Exhilaration was high; it was balanced by the grounded calmness of good horsemanship.

At the apex of our circuit around the barn two deer burst from the bushes and ran right through the line of horses, toward the neighboring woods! The horses STARTLED but stood fast by their girls, including Beau with Tina. I watched as Beau checked in with Tina just after this occurrence — a concerned nod toward Tina, a sniff. Tina carefully laid her cheek on Beau’s back. It was the first time I saw her express tenderness toward Beau, who had been tender with Tina all along…

 

Key Six:  The Successful Social Brain

In our final group sessions each girl was given an opportunity to dance with her horse at liberty in the round pen. It’s not a performance per se, though we do play music. It’s an act of spontaneous co-creation with the horse as partner. Beau added a move of his own. Previously trained to bow on command, each time Tina turned toward Beau, he bowed! Tina did not know he could do this, nor had she presented a cue; Beau was offering simply to please her! Tina could do nothing but bow back. Her peers could not restrain their delighted admiration at the end, causing Tina to break into a wide grin that she could not hide. The group had become a significant source of safe support for each girl during the summer break from school.

 

In such brief interventions, especially with adolescent clients, we hope that the EFPL will serve as one experience that can confer greater resilience in a life already taxed by trauma, a life that may lack other social support and resources as well. In one short summer Tina evidenced a change that showed in her bearing and posture; a change that even a horse will bow to.

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