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Working Through Trauma – Equine Style

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

Working Through Trauma – Equine Style

The aspect of Equine Facilitated Learning that has fascinated me the most is its use in trauma therapy. That work must always be led by a trained and certified therapist, but I was fortunate enough to take training, as the horse professional, in how to incorporate EFL work in trauma resolution. Through the Connection Focused Therapy training, taught by my teacher, Linda Kohanov, and Dr. Rebecca Bailey, well-known California psychologist and complex trauma specialist, I learned the steps and stages of trauma resolution, both through theory and hands-on work with the horses at Montanaquest Horse Sanctuary.

All of us carry the imprint of trauma in our body and it is highly likely that I will encounter clients doing personal or leadership development where existing trauma is limiting their growth. Of course, complex trauma needs a therapist and I am excited to be able to offer the EFL work to therapists who wish to add that modality as an embodied or somatic therapy. I am also able to refer people to a therapist if a trauma arises during the EFL work that the client would like to explore deeper.

However, what I was not prepared nor trained for was the possibility of dealing with a trauma in one of my own horses! Then Ella came home and a whole new area of exploration and learning arose. Ella was shifting from a life spent 20+ hours a day in a box stall to being outside in a one acre pasture 24-7. She loves the freedom of being outdoors, so had no trouble making that transition. But there was one thing that I discovered immediately that was a cause for concern. When I went to unhalter her in the pasture, she would bolt away from me as I slipped the halter over her head. This is very dangerous, as either of us could get hurt in that moment. This was never a problem at the stable, because halters were left on during turnout, and taking off the halter in a stall left no room to bolt.

When I tried to take off the halter in a small paddock outside, using a stud chain over her nose like they did at the stable, she tried to bolt. As soon as the stud chain engaged, she stopped, but when I looked at her, her whole body was shaking – a response way over the top for what had just happened. That is when I knew that the bolting was a trauma response, probably to something that was very old and that she had carried for a long time. It also made sense in terms of what happened at the stable when I first got her. She broke three halters in the first month when staff had her in the cross ties. We learned how to approach her, so could accommodate her tendency to jerk her head up, but we never really addressed the issue. Now, I needed to do so.

Perhaps not by coincidence, I happened to be reading the book Horses in Translation by Sharon Wilsie. Sharon has spent a lifetime watching horses interact with one another in a herd, and has learned how they communicate with each other through their bodies. This book was fascinating to me, ‘rocking my world’ when it came to understanding the nuances with which horses communicate to each other. Sharon also told stories in her book of working through trauma with horses, so I checked her website to see if there was any possibility of getting her to help me with Ella. As luck would have it, Sharon was offering private Zoom sessions, as she was in lockdown at home during Covid. I arranged a session for the following Saturday.

I cannot begin to explain what transpired in that session. Luckily, it was all videoed and recorded so that I could watch it over and over again. It was unbelievably profound to see the trauma stored in Ella’s body work its way through her body, and the extent she needed to process what we were doing. To make a profound and long story short, working through this trauma with Ella has given me a new horse – the horse that always ‘could be’, if not for whatever transpired to cause her trauma.

So, how is working through trauma in a horse different than working through trauma in a human? There are two parts to trauma for humans – there are the sensations that are stored in the body, and then there are the stories we make around them. In horses, there is no story, only sensation. This may make trauma resolution easier in a horse than for a human trauma survivor.

Peter Levine, originator of Somatic Experiencing and a pioneer in trauma resolution through working with the body, writes that if the body is prevented from taking a meaningful action to its conclusion during a traumatic experience, the energy of that unfinished action gets trapped in the body. He explains “your muscles are energized (‘stretched’) in preparation for action. However, when such mobilization is not carried out (whether fight-or-flight or some other protective response such as stiffening, twisting, retracting or ducking), then that potential energy becomes ‘stored’ or ‘filed’ as an unfinished procedure within the implicit memory of the sensorimotor system. When a conscious or unconscious association is activated through a general or specific stimulus, all of the original hormonal and chemical warriors reenergize the muscles as if the original threat were still operating.” (Levine, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, 93). In Ella’s case, whatever the original trauma was, it was triggered when the halter went over her ears, and her muscles energized for flight. Creating a safe space with Ella and using the ‘Rock the Baby’ exercise allowed her muscles to gently discharge the stored energy, and create new pathways of understanding in her nervous system.

This has been an invaluable education in trauma resolution and has created an incredible bond between Ella and me. She has shown me what a sensitive, empathetic, generous horse she really is and I look forward to seeing her work with humans in the EFL work to help them discover new ways into their bodies and emotions.

For those who would like to see this process, I have created a video of our sessions with Sharon and Laura. It is just over an hour in length, so make a cup of tea (and maybe a bowl of popcorn) if you want to watch the process. If you don't have that much time, watch the first 15 minutes, and the last 10 minutes. That will show you A and B. And maybe you will be intrigued enough to want to know how we got from A to B!

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