- Who is this story for?
- What is the underlying message or theme?
- Are there discussion questions that go with the book?
These are just some of the questions I am frequently asked about therapeutic stories within the Healing Hooves Series.
Designed to be Read to a Child by a Care-taking Adult
Healing Hooves stories are designed to be read to a child by a parent, teacher or helping professional. They are not intended for a child to read by themselves. The stories are all attachment based and informed, aiming to deepen and secure the relationship between a child and adult. Our hope is that the simple act of sitting down and reading with the child will be an important part of achieving that goal. Recent research from the National Children’s Bureau in the UK indicates that reading to a child increases connection between the child and caregiver, increases the child’s self esteem, and creates opportunities for the caregiver to talk with the child.
While the primary target age range is age six to ten, we have shared stories from the series with children as young as three, up to teenagers and adults. Often the message is as important for the caregiver reading the story to hear, as it is for the child. We encourage the adult to adjust the language, perhaps simplifying it at times for a younger child. While our stories can be helpful for children who are struggling, particularly in the areas of focus identified for each story, they also communicate universal messages which can be shared with any child, at any time.
Underlying Attachment Themes
Our children’s books are grounded in attachment theory and specifically in the approach taught by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and the Neufeld Institute The attachment themes you will consistently see woven within all the stories include unconditional love, resilience, grace, relationship repair, emotional expression, and recovery from loss.
Our stories aim to help caregivers communicate to children that they are both significant and loved for who they are, rather than for what they do; that there is nothing they need to do to earn that love and acceptance, and nothing they could ever do that would destroy these things.
While some books have a very specific theme (e.g A Heavy Load explores forgiveness and Maggie’s Yellow Ball explores the emotion of frustration) many attachment themes are woven into all of the stories.
- Space for the feeling and expression of emotion. Each story explores some aspect of emotion, and several specifically explore less comfortable emotions such as frustration and sadness. Most of the stories explore some or all aspects of the “Yes, Yes, Redirect” approach to emotions: Yes to the existence and feeling of the emotion, another yes to the need for that emotion to ‘move’ and be expressed, with support and redirection at times around the form and target of that expression.
- Nobody’s perfect. Our animal protagonists make many mistakes and find lots of mischief. The lessons the animals learn along the way – as they face, accept and grow from – their imperfections, are relevant to both children and their caretakers.
- The long term nature of attachment. Several of our books explore relationships which change due to loss or conflict. The animals find ways to ‘hold on’ to these relationships in new and deeper ways while also expressing the associated feelings of loss, frustration and alarm.
- The hierarchical nature of attachment. Research and neuroscience show that attachment is hierarchical. Facilitating care-taking, attachment allows true maturity and independence to grow out of a secure relationship which invites dependence. There are care-taking characters in our stories – most noticeably the herd leader Skye and an older mare Disa – who provide illustrations of this role.
Specific Themes within One Example Story: The Prodigal Pony
Asking a parent if they love their child unconditionally could be an insulting question. Yet our work with children, and with adults reflecting on their childhood, indicates many do not fully perceive that unconditional love, especially when they feel they have somehow ‘messed up’. Many of us grow up believing we need to earn love, act a certain way, or measure up to some yardstick adjective – ‘well behaved’, ‘nice’, ‘successful’, ‘attractive’ – to feel that we truly matter; to be both loved and love-able.
While exploring the sources of that disparity needs to wait for another article, The Prodigal Pony is an attempt to bridge the mismatch and allow caregivers to deliver messages of grace and unconditional love to their children; messages I believe we all need to hear, and experience, a little more.
The main character in this story, Teddy, is a mischievous Shetland pony who tends to act long before he remembers to think. After one such time Teddy walks away from those who love him in fear of the anticipated consequences and of ‘getting what he deserves’.His friend, Pickle, is also anticipating the carriage of justice, but with much less trepidation.
When Teddy finally finds the courage to come home, both ponies are surprised when Teddy does not get what he deserves, and instead is welcomed home by Skye, the leader of their small herd.
It is surprising and a little outrageous, or at least Pickle thinks so; it is unconditional love and grace.
Does this story intend to teach that anything goes? — Absolutely not!
Teddy is repentant. He knows he made a mistake and he wants to make it right. But he discovers that his membership in his herd – and the love they have for him – is not contingent on anything he can or needs to do; it is a gift he need only accept. Pickle struggles with this counter cultural message, as do many of us, which is why we feel this rewrite of a much older story, needs to be shared.
Why Approach Things Through Stories Anyway?
As discussed in an earlier blog One (Horse) Step Removed: The Value of Sharing Stories, there are many times when addressing something directly or pushing a child to talk about something painful before they are ready, is ineffective and does harm.
I think of the analogy of a scab. When we damage our skin, our body may form a physical scab to protect the area of injury and allow healing to happen slowly, from the inside out. At times it might be tempting to ‘rip off the scab’, and since scabs don’t always look very attractive it may make things look a little better for a while, on the surface.
But doing this usually causes more harm, results in a bigger, uglier scab being formed, and slows down the healing process. A scab is our body’s way of telling us that the injury has not completely healed. It needs time. The end goal is to heal to the place where we no longer need the scab’s protection, but short term it needs to be allowed to serve its purpose.
We also have ‘scabs’ for our emotional hurts; defenses we build to protect ourselves from vulnerability, trauma and emotional pain. Like the physical scab these defenses serve to protect us from further harm in the short term. As with a physical hurt the end goal is to no longer need that protection. But ripping off an emotional scab – by pushing someone to talk too directly too soon – also tends to cause more harm, result in bigger, uglier defenses being formed, and slow down the healing process.
Sometimes all our physical and emotional hurts need to heal is time, and a healthy environment.
Other times they need help.
For a physical hurt this might mean some medicine or perhaps an antiseptic cream. For our emotional hurts the answer may be to find indirect ways to talk about the hurt, and to gently touch the pain, to promote healing from the inside out. At Healing Hooves we draw on our animals’ stories, and our clients’ relationships and interactions with our animals to create these healing moments.
Our therapeutic stories are simply our way of extending these opportunities to more people.
Don’t Overdo It
Sometimes one step removed is not enough.
If a child has lost a parent, reading a story about another child whose Mom dies may be too close, too painful, too soon. Making the story about an animal moves it another step away. But if we then ask too many questions about the story, or draw too many parallels, we risk bringing it in too close again.
In most cases I recommend that the parent, teacher or counsellor selecting and reading the story be well informed about the underlying themes, but then move slowly and cautiously with any interpretation. Waiting for the child to draw parallels rather than making your own, waiting for questions from the child rather than pushing yours, or simply leaving it within the context of the story are usually safer and more effective strategies over the longer term.
Another helpful strategy is to wait until something comes up in the child’s own context – perhaps a moment of frustration or sadness – and then, if the child seems receptive, reflect to the story. “This kind of reminds me of what happened in that story we read, remember when Teddy …” And then you wait. This may open things up to a discussion. Or it may not.
Finally, whenever in doubt I recommend you take the advice of my daughter who, at age seven, told me very clearly:
“Mom, just read the story!”
Specific Therapeutic Themes Underlying Other Stories within the Healing Hooves Series
In subsequent blogs we will share user guides for each book within the series; for now here is a brief overview of the key messages and themes within each story:
- Holding On and One More Day with Penny address themes of grief and loss and the ways in which relationships can last forever. These can be helpful for children who have experienced a loss or are facing any sort of separation from loved ones, be it due to split parenting, starting school, moving home, or struggles at bedtime.
- Molly and Cutie’s Run and Maggie’s Yellow Ball, explore the emotion of frustration and how we sometimes need a time and a place to safely release some of our ‘mad’ before we are able to find and express our ‘sad’.
- The Prodigal Pony and Teddy’s Story address themes of guilt, shame, unconditional love and grace. They help us teach children that while we may not like everything they do, our love for them is unconditional. They can also help a child to learn from their mistakes in a healthy and attachment safe way.
- In From the Storm explores the complicated feelings that children and those who love them can experience after trauma, including feelings of self-blame and fear. This story can also be used by parents of adopted and foster children to explore feelings of abandonment.
- A Heavy Load explores the theme of forgiveness, including when reconciliation and relationship repair is appropriate and safe, and when it is not.
- The Perfect Pony is written for the perfectionists among us. It aims to help children learn that love and acceptance is not something they can or need to ‘earn’ through their deeds, performance or abilities but is something they can find in healthy relationships. This book helps shift our focus from ‘what we do’ to ‘who we are’.
- The Bestest Pony in the World and Amanda’s Animals both explore the unconditional nature of love, to which every child is entitled. These stories help parents to gently address any insecurities in this area.
- Finally, aimed towards parents and caregivers, Skye’s Nap explores the challenge many experience in allowing others to take care of them and in finding true rest. This story can also be drawn upon to address roles and responsibilities with parentified or alpha children.
Several of the above books are available for free download through the Healing Hooves Canada Facebook page and below.
All of them are available for purchase as full colour children’s books. Free download versions are included with every purchase of a paper book.
Contact us for more info.
Free Download Links for this and other Therapeutic Stories:
There is no cost to download these books from Healing Hooves but please share our page and resources with others, and tell us what you think of our stories in the comments below or on our page!
Within an EFL context, could use it also as an introduction to a ‘holding on’ writing activity including animals.
That would be a great way to use these stories Pam!
What wonderful stories and great way to communicate with a child! Love them.
I love the safe, indirect, non threatening invitation your stories offer for clients to connect with their own lived experience
thanks Aprille – I think I would struggle to do my work without the ability to work this way!
I love reading stories, its how I like to learn!
me too Melanie!
you are welcome Meghan – I’m glad you like them, and thank you for the kind words! I love writing these stories and see them as a way to share some of these simple yet incredibly important attachment messages with as many people as possible. Please feel free to share these links with others who may enjoy them.
I love these stories and the thoughtful elements you have sewn in! I really love that you have taken the time to make these into well thought out stories. I often use stories, but they usually happen in the moment and then when later reflecting on it, I have often thought if I had added this or that it could have gone even better. I also appreciate that the very nature of reading the stories gives parents and caregivers tools to help them navigate these situations in a healthy way, which can be very empowering when parents witness their children suffering but don’t know how best to support them.
I agree Jennifer, simply sitting down and sharing a book, having the parent read to the child – even when the child could read it themselves – is very powerful from an attachment perspective.
All of these books sound wonderful. I am drawn to at least three of them for my own journey. Thank you so much.
Such great stories! I especially enjoyed reading Molly and Cutie’s Run. It reminded me of the time it sometimes takes to catch one of the previously unhandled ponies I currently foster. Sometimes it is easy and other times he takes me for a real run first!
Thank you for sharing these!
I’m excited to read all the stories, I think this is so wonderful! What a good way to introduce different lessons and inspire healing!
I will be downloading some of these stories for sure. What great work!!
I am excited to read the stories and learn something about myself. I think that reading stories is helpful to anyone.
I agree with the principles behind the utilization of the stories. I cannot wait to write my own with my animals and the stories I have bubbling up! Thanks for sharing and having so many resources available for us to use 🙂
you are welcome Kelly!
Following a literature based approach to home education, I discovered how valuable a story truly is. Until 4 years ago, I really had no idea how impactful a story would be in helping children learn and grow. I am looking forward to reading the rest of your stories.
Absolutely love these stories and what they offer the clients. I think this could really be a powerful tool (used properly) to send home with parents as a bridge at home to continue what we work on in sessions.
absolutely! We often send books home with clients in between sessions – it can be a great way to ‘hold on’ and to involve parents
I have seen real benefit in approaching therapy through the use of story telling — for both adults and children. These stories are valuable resources!
Can’t wait to read these!
Amazing ideas in these books. It makes me realise I still have loads to learn about the complexity of attachment
These a wonderful stories! Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading all of them.
Beautiful works. Have you considered doing any co writing with indigenous authors. The majority of folks I have out here are indigenous.
that sounds like it would be an interesting process Erin!
These are all such beautiful stories and I couldn’t agree more with your statement about the message being as important for the caregiver reading the story to hear, as it is for the child!
I love the lessons inherent in stories. We can learn so much from others’ mistakes and the lessons they learn along the way. I love stories for their ability to teach and empathize without us ever having to experience the exact same thing. We can empathize with how Teddy must have felt, how Pickle must have felt, and how Skye must have felt because, in our ways, we have been in each of those positions, even though we’ve never been a horse who gorged on carrots!
The Yes, Yes, Redirect approach to emotions is interesting. I’d like to see how can I incorporate that into my own understanding of emotions and emotional processing. I use an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach to emotions, which encourages clients to relate to difficult emotions not as problems to be solved, but experiences to be felt and wisdom to be gained. This perspective helps clients to be willing to feel their emotions and learn from them, rather than to react impulsively to emotions in an attempt to escape from them.
I really enjoy this format for sharing wisdom in that one step removed process. Unfortunately I do not currently work with children. Do you still use these stories with adults or do you rely on more informal story telling as your sessions progress? I am looking forward to reading the stories to my own child!
My children all gravitated towards animal stories. Connections with animals and compassion for them and their stories always seem to come easy when maybe compassion for themselves and others didn’t come so easy.
Story sharing is a great way to share wisdom and teachings – I use it alot when instructing my remote nursing students. With your permission, I would like to share these resources with my current students to have in their “toolbox” for their remote nursing careers!
Hi Ginny – you are welcome to share the stories! Most of them are available trough the blog. Another option is to get the paper ‘real book’ copies when you are here onsite
This article makes me think of our Indigenous culture’s oral traditions and how ‘stories’ are used as an indirect and sometimes direct ways to pass along generations of wisdom and knowledge as well as to teach youngsters what is socially acceptable. The meaning of the story can be very powerful, yet the lesson softens as we listen to the trials and tribulations of the characters going through similar events to our own.
Absolutely, the power in all of this is the ‘softening’ (and the indirect nature of a story) as this creates the emotional safety which is very much needed in order to feel those emotions
Your books are amazing. So much power in the written word. I love books and reading and being read to. I enjoy reading to clients and they do to- I am making a generalization here, but feel after about age 6 or 7, parents reading out loud to kids have decreased over the years so they are usually very receptive.
Thanks Sue! And yes, I agree, sadly many parents are less likely to read to their kids once the kids are able to read themselves – but a parent reading to a child – of any age – can be such a powerful attachment experience
I actually just had a lecture on attachment styles. We learnt that people who have insecure attachments with friends and family may be able to form a secure attachment with the animal. This can then help facilitate a secure attachment between the client and the therapist.
that is a great point Emily! It’s also why I’m actually not a fan of the material on ‘attachment styles’ as I’ve found it can pigeon hole people in one category or another when the reality is that it is usually much more fluid and relationship specific than that
I like what was said about not asking too many questions following the story. It makes me think of what my supervisor recommends in most cases of play in therapy with children dealing with trauma. She says to, “keep it in the metaphor of play.”
It is that similar approach of working around the area of pain to not cause more pain or damage if not ready.
Definitely! This is something I’m continually reminded of in so many areas – we don’t need to ‘make the transfers’ and it is often better not to.
I really loved these stories. I think this is a great way to allow reflection and processing to happen with out being too direct and asking too many questions. It allows for the readers to find empathy and connection, which in turn will hopefully start the process of healing and relatability to others.
The more I learn about your approach Sue the more I come to understand the healing power behind it. These stories are wonderful. I was picturing what it might be like reading these stories to clients in the presence of the horses themselves.
That’s great Chaundra! We do often read the stories to the animals with clients present and vice versa. We have one up on you tube of a story being tread to the horses (and Galileo the cat who insisted on being a part of it too)!
You can find that one here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHCNlr7AaQc&list=PLMLfPdkTI-wTkABT7ckDCHftU1LqRW_cu&ab_channel=HealingHooves
I really like all the themes explored and see the potential for using your stories with a wide variety of clients and varying needs. The analogy of the scab is really helpful and when “one step removed” even asking too many questions can be unhelpful – made me appreciate the need to take everything slowly, raise subjects gently, let the child speak and then be cautious with questions. I recently read “The Prodigal Pony” to my own children and they loved it!
I’m glad your kids liked the book Donna! And yes – I’ve always been one to ask a few too many questions so it’s been a process for me to say and ask less. A worthwhile one though!
writing these stories was a beautiful and wise undertaking! Stories have a way of opening up doors that may not have otherwise been opened (even if just by a tiny crack!). And besides, who doesn’t love to be read to??
Powerful lessons can be learned through the experiences of others. Just the mere thought that “It’s not just me” can be literally life saving for some. Thank you for writing these stories.
I like the idea of encouraging parents to read stories with their children. This is one of the main attachment-based activities I suggest to parents; having a parent read to their child before bed facilitates attachment and co-regulation (nervous system regulation). And again, I appreciate the indirectness!
Thanks Mikayla! I wonder what research there is out there to show what’s happening in both the parent’s and child’s nervous system at these times? Would be hard to measure I’m sure an the act of measuring it would change it, but still an interesting thought to ponder!
I love these therapeutic stories – I’ve often uses “Social Stories” (taught by Carol Gray) in my work with autistic kiddos in order to help them understand unexpected changes in their life, but they are often very direct. I appreciate the indirect approach and relatability of writing the stories from the horse’s perspective as I believe it brings even more opportunities for understanding.
Thanks Melissa! This is one of the reasons I started writing these stories actually – the ones I could find out there were just too direct!
Such beautifully written stories grounded in attachment theory that use an indirect approach to support children to identify their emotions with the horses they get to see at Healing Hooves! Thanks Sue for the amazing examples of how we can support clients with the power of reading and connection.
I’m excited to get to know these stories better. I didn’t know if this was right for me but I’m really encouraged by this approach.
I’m glad that you like the stories Keltie! We build many more of them into foundations and focus trainings (and also explore how to integrate them therapeutically including within case studies) but you can also access many of them directly from our website – from the links above an also within other articles in this section of the blog
I can’t wait to read some more of these stories!!
There are lots more to come in the training/s!