I watched her make her way to the therapy office for her intake session, struck by the way she made her approach: crouching down, she almost seemed to be crawling towards the door; constantly looking over her shoulder before ducking her head again. Her trajectory weaved in zig zagging diagonals across the open space between her weather beaten pick up truck and where I was now standing on the front porch. “Hello, *Dee!” I called out, hoping not to startle her. She stopped and stared at me for a full minute, eyes wide, statue-like among the wildflowers blooming along the path. I knew their bright colors were lost on her. The only thing Dee could see at this moment was the distance that remained between herself and the door, and the dubious likelihood that she would make it there safely. This was my first introduction to one of the most traumatized clients I have ever worked with using Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
Dee had been referred for EAP by her social worker because she has been brutally raped by a neighbor whom she let into her home when he promised to help change her air filters. Dee struggled with balance issues and was afraid to stand on a ladder to change them herself, but also suffered from asthma so overcame her natural reticence of men in hopes that clean filters might help her to breathe better. Dee’s decision to trust this seemingly good Samaritan proved to be catastrophic when he held her captive for hours and subjected her to unspeakable suffering. Dee came to me suffering from panic attacks, insomnia, flashbacks, vertigo, anxiety and depression. She experienced dissociative spells where she would lose days at a time, lying trance-like on her couch without eating or having any contact with other people. Coming to our therapy appointment was the first time she had left her house in the past 3 weeks.
I had to be careful to always walk where Dee could see me, a little ahead of her, never behind, and never too close. I noticed, though, that she could let the horses into her space much more easily. She chose her relationship horse fairly quickly, a light colored Palomino whom she nick-named Sunny. Dee spent hours grooming Sunny, untangling her tail, feeding her slices of apple, talking around and around the assault. I wasn’t allowed to label anything that had happened to her accurately; she flinched and reacted when I used words like assault or rapist, preferring to say “the event” or “that man.” Little details about past abuse drifted out: an abusive, alcoholic father, then a series of similar stepfathers, until she married an abusive alcoholic herself, whom she left behind in another state to come here, and encountered again in the form of a treacherous neighbor. All the while the brush made rhythmic, circular patterns on Sunny’s side as Dee and I breathed in and out together, inhaling the soothing smell and presence of her horse, exhaling the pain and suffering she had experienced throughout her troubled life.
When we started working on increasing their attachment, Dee stopped bringing apples to sessions because she said, “I want Sunny to be connected to me, not the food, and the apples make her pushy and rude.” Indeed, Sunny spent a great deal of time early in the therapy work pushing into Dee’s space and driving her around the pen instead of following her during attachment work. Dee allowed this to happen for a long time before recognizing she had re-created the bullying patterns in relationships she experienced with the abusive men in her past. Once she realized that her passive (too low) body energy invited aggression from Sunny, Dee began using appropriate amounts of pressure to make requests for connection. As Dee grasped that she was worth being recognized and respected, she and Sunny had more positive interactions.
Detachment felt better to Dee than attachment initially, but worse for Sunny. Sunny often simply refused to step away and allow space between herself and Dee. Dee would allow her to stay, stroking her neck and worrying about Sunny feeling rejected if Dee insisted on creating some space between them. We reflected how giving herself space had never been an option for Dee in the past, because she allowed other people to set the terms for the relationship. We worked on creating safety for both of them using appropriate levels of body energy to maintain the pressure when Sunny resisted the request to move away from Dee.
On the day Dee felt ready to tell her whole story, she paced around the round pen in jerky, short strides. Sunny fell in step behind her. Dee spit out her pain in ragged, harsh tones. Sunny fell behind, eyes wide, ears upright and forward, body rigid. Eventually she stopped following Dee and stood stock still in the middle of the pen. Dee didn’t notice at first, continuing to hurtle around the pen in a frenzy of anguish. Her voice trailed off when she saw Sunny’s frozen stance. She burst into the first tears she had shed in a session. “I’ve frightened her . .. it’s too much,” Dee cried, crumpling to the ground. Sunny walked over to where Dee lay in a heap and breathed softly in her ear. The mare’s eyes were half closed and her body was relaxed. She cocked one hind leg as she stood vigil over her sobbing friend. I pointed out that Sunny did not seem to be overwhelmed by Dee’s story, or her pain. Dee finished her account siting cross legged on the ground, Sunny’s head resting against her shoulder, stroking the blaze that ran down her face. Her tone was soft, her words unhurried and thoughtful. She used the language we had created together, naming her rapist and the assault as well as the rage and grief that followed. Sunny and I created a safe space for Dee to experience her pain and be accepted and supported through it.
In subsequent sessions, Dee participated in equine assisted trauma processing to help her begin to re-process her traumatic memories. This kind of mounted work helps metabolize traumatic memories that have been frozen in their original state so that the intense emotions they trigger can be released and the traumatic memory stored in the brain the way that normal memories are. I explained how her brain literally needed to be “re-wired” so that she didn’t remain in the survival part or base of her brain, in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and fear, or in the limbic system, or mid brain, in an emotionally escalated state, but could be in the thinking part of her brain, her neo-cortex, to make more informed decisions about the input coming in from the environment, giving her a wider range of responses available to her than the avoidant and dissociative tendencies she had been relying on to avoid being triggered into a state of panic.
At one point in the therapy, Dee had to go back to her home state visit to visit her daughter, who had been hospitalized after an accident. Dee had created a Safe Place Protocol as part of her trauma processing work, visualizing a meadow full of flowers where she and Sunny played and dozed. The warm, wonderful feelings accompanying that visualization helped Dee ward off the panic the survival part of her brain produced whenever she thought about going back to the place where her ex-husband and other abusers still lived. Using mindfulness and grounding techniques, Dee practiced remaining fully present in the round pen with Sunny instead of dissociating in a panic while visualizing flying home to visit her daughter. Every time Dee started to dissociate, Sunny disconnected from her, turning or walking way. Sunny taught Dee how to recognize when the dissociation started, and how to catch and change this habitual pathway in her brain with mindfulness techniques before her mind completely drifted away. “I miss her when she leaves,” Dee would say. Staying connected with Sunny became Dee’s motivation to work on her dissociative tendencies. She walked beside Sunny, with a hand on her side, so she could feel the rhythm of Sunny’s heartbeat and breathing and use it to regulate her own. (When calm, a horse’s resting heart rate is 38 – 40 beats per minutes, considerably slower than a human’s, particularly a traumatized human. The large electro-magnetic field of a horse’s heart can help regulate the heart rates of those around him.)
Dee was able to successfully travel home to visit her daughter without incident. By the time we finished therapy, Dee was not only leaving the house for her sessions, but also taking her newly acquired rescue dog to a dog park and talking to other dog owners she met there. Whenever she began to feel panicky, she would visualize being connected to Sunny and breathe deeply through the wave of anxiety until it passed. Before leaving therapy, we took some of Sunny’s hair from her mane and tail and braided the strands into a bracelet that Dee could wear as a transitional object. Dee recently texted me that while she misses coming to see Sunny, “I carry her in my mind and heart and can experience her presence whenever I need her.” They built a truly lasting internal connection!
*all names and identifying information have been changed to protect confidentiality