Wow... we thought this day would never come!!! Thanks to my A-TEAM: David Young, Ricki Martin, Catherine Madera, and so many others! Please enjoy this sneak peek at chapter one!!!…
I call 1988 the year of my 180. I was 30 years old and my goals at the time were simple: build my skills and reputation as a horse trainer and riding instructor. I was willing to work hard to succeed in an equestrian career. I loved horses and they had been my refuge, a resilience factor for a lonely youth. When I embarked on a career as a horseperson, horses also became a stage on which my abilities, and vulnerabilities, were displayed. And that was not always easy.
In the spring of that turnaround year, I went to evaluate a small sorrel mare as a potential lesson horse for the riding stable I managed in Issaquah, Washington. A lifelong horsewoman, I knew what to look for and what questions to ask. Noting the irregular muscle development in her neck I asked, “Does she have any problems-head tossing, for instance?”
“No, nothing like that.” The young woman didn’t meet my eyes. When I asked her to ride the mare before I tried her myself, she sat passively on the horse, with no contact from her legs or reins, allowing the horse to wander at will. There was something suspicious about her actions and what came out of her mouth. It didn’t add up.
Irritated by the waste of time, my mind rushed to judgment: She can’t even ride. The longer I watched the more obvious the problem appeared to me. I knew what good horsemanship looked like and she didn’t have it. Though my instincts told me the mare wouldn’t be a good fit for our lesson barn I wanted to make a point. “Let me ride her.”
If I knew then what I know now about emotion and behavior as it exists in all mammals, (starting with myself) I’d have never gotten on that mare. But I was a tough cowgirl, confident that I could impose my will on the horse and the situation. It took only moments for a contest of wills to become a wreck-the horseman’s term for a dangerous accident. The mare reared high, flinging herself backward and falling on top of me. In a flash I went from confident horse trainer to hospital patient.
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…
How can a connected relationship with the horse help the client heal? The answer lies deep within the mammalian brain, in the brain’s limbic system and its body-based partner, the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The limbic system is a set of related structures found in the mid-brain of humans and other mammals. It is located between the primitive, reflex-driven brainstem, and the topmost layer of the brain, the cortex.
Limbic neural pathways develop early, before verbal and logical capacities; they form templates for attachment and belonging throughout life. Trauma, family dysfunction and violence can set the brainstem, limbic brain and ANS on a permanent “false alarm”; imprinting the mind-body system with hyper- or hypo-arousal, impairing the development and functioning of the reasoning cortex (Szalavitz and Perry, 2010). Limbic patterns are especially impacted by interpersonal violence, when humans who should provide safety are abusers.
Moving a person from trauma to healing requires restructuring of emotional response. This must come in the form of new experiences that engage and soothe, or “regulate” this sensitive limbic region of the brain. The book A General Theory of Love (Lewis, Amini and Lannon, 2000) explains the neurological re-wiring that can happen within a bonded relationship. Limbic neuroplasicity – the remodeling of affective neural pathways and responses — requires three stages:
- limbic resonance, defined as a shared empathy in which two mammals become attuned to each other’s inner states
- limbic regulation, defined as reading each other’s emotional cues, adjusting to each other and soothing or regulate the physiology of the other
- limbic revision, defined as adaptation to healthier template for future relationships
(Lewis et al. 2000)
“Because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiologic rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we change one another’s brains through limbic revision – What we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.” (A General Theory of Love, Lewis et al. 2000: 177)