“Why won’t she share this with us?”
“How can I get him to tell me what he’s feeling?”
“I just don’t know what I’m feeling.”
I hear these concerns regularly in my practice from parents, from spouses, from people seeking support for themselves. It seems to be a common dilemma. We know that in order to heal from trauma, to build or repair relationship and to grow emotionally, we need to feel, process, and yes, sometimes talk about our emotions, our experiences and our pain. And yet it is all so hard sometimes. Particularly for our children and teens, and especially when those emotions and experiences are vulnerable, traumatic or overwhelming.
Eleven-year old Jasmin is referred to counselling by her teacher, due to aggressive outbursts with peers and plummeting grades. At our intake session Jasmin’s father fights back tears, “Their mom died last year but none of the kids will talk about it.” He looks down at his hands, “Jasmin didn’t even cry at the funeral, so I’m not sure you’ll get much out of her.” He sighs, “She seemed so strong back then, but now …”
The first time we meet, Jasmin, face hidden behind long black hair, tells me she is ‘bad’ because she hit her little brother last week.
Some pain is too painful to touch.
Some words can’t be said out loud.
How can we help children heal from wounds that feel too vulnerable and overwhelming to even name?
It is normal, often necessary, and even healthy to build defenses to protect ourselves from overwhelming vulnerability, trauma and emotional pain, just as our bodies would grow a scab to protect a physical wound. These defenses can be what allow us to survive; giving us the ability to function within an otherwise intolerable world. However, in the longer term, staying ‘stuck’ in defenses stands in the way of our healing. Yet attempts to challenge and remove these defenses ‘head on’ usually result in us clinging to them with even greater desperation.
Fortunately, there is another way; a way to bypass the walls we build up, and to gently touch the pain in a way that promotes healing rather than building further defenses. For our most vulnerable children, for the hurts that hurt too much, and for sensitivities that are too much to bear, we can still find a way through – just one step removed.
Teddy, a fuzzy Shetland pony, also hides behind long, black hair. Yet when I gently comb his forelock and look into his brown eyes, I sense a deep well of wisdom. Jasmin seems to get the same impression and spends much of her initial equine therapy sessions with her arms wrapped around Teddy’s sturdy little neck while I share stories of his antics and he munches contentedly on a pile of hay. After a few weeks I mention the time several years ago when Teddy discovered his favourite herd member, Cutie, had died. I brush another horse alongside and take it slow, “for a long time, Teddy seemed to be pretty angry at Cutie for leaving him.” I keep brushing and Jasmin focuses on the braid she is adding to Teddy’s mane.
Three braids complete, she looks up, “how did you know he was angry?”
I describe how Teddy kept to himself and tried to kick any ponies in his herd who came too close. He didn’t let us brush him and some days refused to eat his hay.
It sometimes seemed like he was so mad at the world that he didn’t care about anyone or anything.
But the look in Jasmin’s eyes as she adds more braids to Teddy’s mane suggests she knows he really did care, very much. Tears well up in those eyes as Jasmin listens to the part of the story where Teddy finally let Skye, the herd leader, approach and comfort him. She hugs Teddy and her gentle whisper reassures him that he is a good horse, and that she loves him.
Jasmin can’t cry or talk about losing her mom, not yet; but I trust she is starting to realise there is often a lot of mad to get through before we can find the sad, and when we find a safe person – or horse – to be sad with, we find the rest we need.
I glance over at Jasmin’s Dad, watching from over the fence, tears rolling freely down his own face, and offer a smile of encouragement.
We are on the right path.
Hopefully in time, Jasmin and many other children – and adults – will be able to talk about why they stopped feeling their emotions; to start to feel – and perhaps even to talk about those feelings – again. Pushing, demanding or coercing this is unlikely to work, and risks causing more harm, as the north wind discovered in Aesop’s classic tale when he tried to ‘blast’ the coat off a man walking through a park, making the man cling to his coat all the more determinedly.
Instead, I believe we can all invite that process more gently. We can touch a child’s pain indirectly, perhaps by talking about an animal in the child’s life, and we can share stories. Like the warm sun in Aesop’s fable let’s start to melt some of those defenses without always needing to name them. And in time, just as the man in the park eventually removed his coat in the warmth of the sun, we can hopefully start to heal their hearts, one (horse) step removed.
Note: This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issues of Connect and Refresh, a newsletter from the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association
That’s a very touching story. Learning how to make the horse to human connection is what I am looking the most forward to.
Such a great story. Thanks for sharing.
Love this story!
A very good connection with problems that lots of people are facing daily. Great article Sue, Tks for sharing it
These stories are so inspirational! Your therapeutic process pairs so amazingly well with the foundational principle of Child and Youth Care and how I have worked with youth over my career. I am so excited to learn more and put it into practice!
Love this story and the connection made by this young girl and Teddy
It seems like Jasmin can relate to Teddy in a way that she is not able to express in words at her young age. They can share their grief in an unspoken way.
It’s really great, and quite touching, to be able to relate horse’s stories to people’s lives. What happens when you come across a situations where you don’t really have any animal with similar situations/traits/experiences… I couldn’t ever see you making up the history of an animal to be able to ‘falsely’ relate – so what would you do in a situation where there really isn’t a story that could match? Do you find that the client still feels a connection?
Good question Andrea! We regularly have clients whose stories are quite different from those of the horses they are working with – yet there always seems to be common ground upon which to relate. They may have had very different experiences but sometimes their reactions were similar, and often the emotions are similar. There are also times when the client see’s things I don’t and which may or may not be factually accurate for the horse. When this happens I usually follow the client and go with their interpretation and story, provided there are no safety reasons not to do this.
An example of this is in one of our other posts: https://healinghooves.ca/bolt-a-case-study/
But you are correct in that we do need to be genuine and real in what we present. I am sometimes vague (and sometimes don’t know a horses’ history) though and let the client tell me what they think!
Further to andrea’s question: what if we don’t know the horses story (history)?
Hi Elizabeth – I often don’t know the full story. Similar to as discussed above I may make much space for the client’s interpretation and idea. Or I may guide and inform this based on what I do know (including through the horse’s behaviour). Provided it is safe, I am guided by the client’s needs
I think this can be sometimes a great way for insights from the client – I know working with veterans at the barn, I don’t always know everything about a horse that a couple may be working with. However, I find this can be a great starting point and often will lead to more insights by the client when I am honest about not knowing the history. It’s almost as if, the client is more willing to build that trust with me when I do not act as though I know all the answers….
so true! It’s good for us to get out of that ‘expert’ role and be curious right along with the client!
I resonate with the idea there’s lots of ‘mad to get through before we get to the sad’…
I think that is true for us all some days, and especially so for younger children or when there is great vulnerability and the defenses are starting to build. I’m so grateful we have the horses and their stories to help us navigate these times!
What a great and touching story ❤️❤️
In my fledgling practice in equine therapy thus far, I have experienced I think Sue what you experienced with this young woman. The connection between horse and human. Knowing as a human the horse is not going to judge your thoughts or emotions and you can just be…I always say to my clients ‘I know I ain’t the attraction here and it’s my co therapists’ but take no offence in that as they are a big part of seeing ‘movement’ for clients.
This is one of my favourite articles. There is a lot of mad to get through before feeling the sad, describing the adaptive purposes of defenses, how we can work with defenses that are stuck…there are so many wonderful concepts in this article and the tone is gentle and accepting. I will probably have this one printed out and on my office wall eventually 🙂
I really like this article as it highlights the beauty of this work quite nicely. I appreciate the gentle, indirect approach and the analogy of the scab. In keeping with that analogy, if we continue to pick/remove the scab before it is healed underneath, a scar will form. The scab is purposeful and will fall off when ready. This approach reminds me of the way children can work through issues indirectly in play therapy, as they play out what they are not able to put into words.
I like how you worked with this metaphor in terms of a scab v. a scar Nanette!
I found this story touching as well as an important way to allow the space for the client to just be. Even not rushing the story about Teddy losing Cutie allowed the client to build a relationship before looking at the hard things Teddy had been through.
I love the brilliance of this story and how it illustrates the healing power of empathy but through a one step removed approach. I often find the most difficult clients I work with are military verterans. They seems to have the toughest walls up making it very difficult to get through to do the work since they are resistant to sharing their stories and feelings. I can see how sharing the horses’ stories that are similar to what I observe in the clients can allow for an opportunity for empathy through a safer indirect approach. This may or may not invite the client to share their story/feelings but it can at the very least offer a shared understanding and empathic feeling that it itself could be very healing for the client. Thank you!
I love the brilliance of this story and how it illustrates the healing power of empathy but through a one step removed approach. I often find the most difficult clients I work with are military veterans. They seem to have the toughest walls up making it very difficult to get through to do the work since they are resistant to sharing their stories and feelings. I can see how sharing the horses’ stories that are similar to what I observe in the client can allow for an opportunity for empathy through a safer indirect approach. This may or may not invite the client to share their story/feelings but it can at the very least offer a shared understanding and empathic feeling that in itself could be very healing for the client. Thank you!
You are welcome Trinity!
What a touching story. This reminds me of a short documentary called Children Full of Life.
This reminds me again of the importance of slowing down, and honouring the developmental process. Thanks, Sue!
you’re welcome Kellee!
Really appreciated, “there’s often a lot of mad to get through before we can find the sad”…. underneath the anger is often sadness, disappointment, discouragement…. an unmet need, loss, or rejection…. let’s get underneath and remember to explore the whole iceberg
absolutely – an insight approach!
also significant for me was the therapist’s trust in their equine partner to help facilitate this child’s healing
Such a touching story. I love the time, letting her ask questions, responding to her needs, no pushing.
this reminds me of Ann Mortifies’s song Born to live … not just survive, to feel it all to feel alive.
to feel it all and to love again.
Great story, very touching.
Love this! It is so critical that we earn the right to hear someone’s story, and working with horses can be a huge key to that. The gentle giants who just seem to know when to let us cuddle, cry, and just be with us. Oh that we could give each other such incredible gifts.
I am so grateful for the way that you explained this. This is something that can be very difficult to understand. The understanding that the defenses built around trauma can indeed be helpful and even ways of survival and that asking someone to suddenly change those defenses is almost as difficult as asking them to stop breathing. And the vitalness of being one step removed and respecting the hallowed ground there and the healing or the hurt that can be caused. Thank you
I like how you express this Jennifer!
This is such a touching story. Thank you for sharing it. It is amazing how sometimes when we hear the stories of animals that are similar to our own pain, how somehow it becomes okay to feel our pain. I think sometimes it is easier to feel compassion for an animal who is going through the same pain than it is to have compassion for ourselves for our pain. You told this so beautifully and really showed how AAT can be so important to the process of feeling and expressing the parts of ourselves that feel too vulnerable to talk about in a traditional counselling setting.
I love how you express: “sometimes when we hear the stories of animals that are similar to our own pain, how somehow it becomes okay to feel our pain” – this speaks to the invitation to feel, and the space for emotion, that I think EFW and AAT can be so good at providing
I’ve witnessed grieving animals a number of times and it is so neat to be able to link it to our own or clients’ grieving processes. This article shows the pure power this type of therapy can have.
Beautiful article…what a profound statement, “Some pain is too painful to touch….”
Beautiful story. I have always been able to empathize greatly with animals, and I think for children, it is very much the same. They can connect and feel safe and empathise with an animal and their feelings, and this opens up the door for them to start becoming introspective. The addition of being able to share stories and connect with people and horses through common experiences is incredible.
Goosebumps again. Thanks for a successful example of one step removed, Sue.
glad you liked it Judy!
This story is so touching and beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes.
This work can be so powerful and beautiful!
This is such a wise and gentle approach.
I love learning about the one step removed approach. I think it can be very valuable and allows clients to become ready in THEIR time and THEIR way. I have worked in a lot of therapy settings that cant allow this due to time restraints etc. But I do see how important it is.
I hear you Anne – it is tough when the expectations lead or require us to work more quickly or directly than we would prefer to or is than is best for the client. In these situations I try to find ways to modify the expectations but I realise this is not always possible!
I too love and agree with Jacqueline Medalye’s comment : “sometimes when we hear the stories of animals that are similar to our own pain, how somehow it becomes okay to feel our pain” it is such a normalizing mutual experience that silently lets us know it’s ok to hurt and can open that door to do so, knowing we are not alone.
I like how you phrase this Sara, “silently lets us know…”
Thank you for sharing this moving experience and for the beautiful stories you have written and published. They are a gift to the world! I love to leave lots of wiggle room in telling clients about horses that they work with so that they can share what they are perceiving. I had a client recently who approached a horse from outside the fence and saw something entirely different than I did, which was exactly what she needed to see, and she came to her own insights and learnings. I am so grateful I did not say anything as this opportunity would have been missed! Sometimes it certainly does help to draw on a known story about a horse as well…. this is the art of our work.
I agree – there are pros and cons of each approach and finding the right fit for each person and in each situation is an art – which we will sometimes get wrong!
Great story. It’s neat to see the power of story and how it can help people who don’t want to talk about something to open up and to think about their own story. The story of others or an animal helps us to take a step back from our situation yet still learn something about ourselves in the process. I can see now how a story can be one step removed from a situation.
It just is so important to give ourselves and our clients, as well as our animal/horse, that time to be. To just be.
We cannot accept ourselves all the time, and having that attachment, trusting attachment, without expectations, allows us to be able to come into ourselves, see it, acknowledge it, and at the time when we are ready, we will be able to own it.
Having that one step removed, in my opinion, is HUGE!! The safety in it is so important. And animals have always been that for me. I sincerely hope to give this to others!!
The pressure to name the pain and get a client to touch that pain can be intense for a clinician. We believe they are strong and capable of healing, and so sometimes our desire for them can cause us to be more than we should. I appreciate this article and the idea of “one step away”, not succumbing to pressure to identify, label, and move the client where they may not be ready to go. Rather, to come alongside, to be, even when it might feel like not much happened, to provide the context for clients to touch their pain in their own ways when they are ready. This article challenges me to avoid exact definitions and labels, and to be open to seeing how people are more different than they are the same.
This story was really meaningful to read. I actually love the part where it took several visits before even getting to the “one step removed” an indirect story of Teddy and his loss. I think that the one step removed approach would lose some of it’s magic and power if we were to rush into it and make the connections overly obvious. To be patient, to ease in, and allow the relationship and attachment to flourish between client and horse BEFORE getting into the relevant metaphors and stories that touch their pain seems like such a kind and “person-first” approach to healing and growth.
I agree – taking things slow is important
This was a really beautiful reminder about the importance of taking things slowly, and that often the most direct route is not the most effective or helpful route.
What a great story and a lesson in how taking it slow is beneficial.
The story of Teddy and Jasmine made me tear up, that was beautiful. And I see more clearly now how stories can help approach pain and start the healing process more gently.
However I’m curious if you have a clever teen who might get the point of the story being directed at their own experience, which could make them angry, how would you deal with that? Or would that been seen as having taken a step too soon?
yes – this would be an example where one step removed is not far enough and you need to back off/ slow down. There are times though when someone is well aware of the parallel but is just not quite ready to name/ acknowledge it ‘out loud’. In these cases a story can still be helpful
Lovely! Beautiful. Children of European descent today are not modelled how to grieve (None of us are). THey are modelled to get angry and hit out. Get revenge for the pain caused by the trauma. Indigenous cultures have always had a process. And Horses have been in the centre of it for many nations. As one Elder shared, taking the pain from the person and releasing it. Horses release by running, bucking and dancing. Something we should do too.
I agree! Horses are often so much better than us at allowing emotions to flow through them and allow their nervous system to reset. WE actually have a recent video of our herd demonstrating this if you’d like to watch it: https://www.facebook.com/healinghoovescanada/videos/386452396497116/
What a beautiful story. It serves as a great reminder of the merits of slow work!
Yes, that is one of the biggest things I think we all need to allow for more of – slowing down!
What a beautiful story and moment! This truly illustrates the power and wisdom inherent in taking a slow, indirect, one step removed approach. I loved the “three braids in” analogy allowing Jasmin the time and space to ask how you knew Teddy was angry about having lost someone he loved.
This is a very touching story. Thanks for raising the importance of making space for the client’s interpretation.
I love the gentleness of this approach and the heart-level approach, rather than the head-level approach. For those not ready to talk about their pain, a horse can likely offer so much healing because they, too, feel pain, but don’t talk about it out loud, and don’t ask us to talk about it out loud. Some of the most powerful moments we have with others, human or animal, is when we just exist together without talking, knowing we both “get it”.
Loved this story! It makes me think about how so many quick therapy approaches are all geared towards skipping out of the pain and moving where we all know we “should be” or in toxic positivity which is demeaning to the persons experience. So much so that clients often don’t feel heard or understood because therapists are also uncomfortable sitting with tough feelings and experiences. I like how this makes space to digest the experience and trust the developmental process that the body and clients will find their way through it naturally in their own way when given the space and time to explore it. The one step removed process seems to allow for this less threatening self exploration.
great way to express this Elicia – I especially love your words “space to digest the experience”. This approach also fits so well with what we know about the nervous system – we need to follow a natural process of creating safety and providing support, to allow the system to regulate, before we can move on to anything else.
What a touching story. It reminds me of a line in a children’s movie that explains somebody’s actions like those of Jasmin as “sad-mad”, not mad-mad.
These stories really help me to understand the connection to the “wellness” direction. Thank you!
When we train to work directly with clients, we are taught to focus on their non-verbal cues to help us determine the emotional processes taking place. I love how the horse allows the facilitator to grant the client the ‘ grace and the space’ to process their emotions without having to feel like their every movement is being observed and interpreted. It seems that by being one step removed as the facilitator we are in turn giving the client greater agency over their own journey to healing.
yes absolutely – and also the emotional safety to invite (but not require, coerce or push) a person to feel those emotions as and when they are ready. So much easy to do this when it’s not about us!
As I am not a counselor, I like the way this approach works. I, as a facilitator, look at what my horse is doing and the way their body language is to help my participants learn more about what is instilled in them. I try to help them bring out the best in themselves and let them know its ok to feel and be themselves where it is safe.
Another beautiful story. What stood out most to me was how you didn’t touch the pain until there was a level of safety already created in the relationship with you, Pickle, and your client.
What an amazing example of the power of one-step removed. I love the autonomy and awareness this approach affords the clients.
Such a beautiful demonstration of the power of indirect work. Sometimes I find parents or grandparents have a timeline or agenda that they feel their child should be on when processing strong emotions when in actuality there is no set timeline! For us as clinicians sometimes it is tough to trust in the process, but it is so important. I love how animals each have their own story and unique traits that can be so relatable to our clients in a safe tangible way.
great points here Sue – removing the agenda is so key to this work and approach
This story is so touching and really reflects the healing nature of horses! They are such great partners 🙂
I appreciate the way of working around the wound rather than directly on it. I does make me think twice about how many times I know where we need to go and what we need to do, but possible pushed it too soon.
Thanks for this reminder especially in the use of stories and metaphors.
I really appreciated the story. I work with students everyday that are going through similar experiences and we are trying to find ways that we can connect with them. I feel that introducing stories parallel to their own experience is a great way to create that empathy and understanding. Finding a common connection to help build the relationship and healing process.
Love that you highlight the ‘common connection’. In Foundation training we start to explore attachment theory in more depth (in the EFW context) and finding these common connections is a key part of this
This was beautiful. This article really spoke to the power of the animal in relationship and how connecting with the animal’s experience can indirectly lead to the expression of our own. I have often found myself in my role as a therapist (especially with youth) trying to softly broach difficult topics and feeling as though there isn’t “an easy way”. Teddy so clearly provided more ease to meeting this young girl at her place of readiness.
Such a moving story and worth taking the time over several sessions to build that trust and relationship before even broaching the subject, and so powerful. I imagine this works equally well with adults and just wondering if Teddie ever had to be debriefed after and if so how you did that with him? Or did he just enjoy all the braiding and attention?
This is a great question Donna and one I had to give some thought to as this all happened over ten years OK! Teddy could be tricky to debrief with but any moments when he let us in and accepted comfort and was vulnerable we us we made lots of space for. He can be one who initially presents as not needing/ wanting much attention but if you keep inviting shows that he actually loves it!
This is a beautiful story. I work with clients who have endured significant trauma – gentle approaches are always best in my practice!
Such beautiful patience and grace. A great example of creating a safe, mutually healing environment.
A very heartwarming story and I loved that it was about a little person.
I would question though whether clients actually “…stopped feeling” just because they aren’t expressing it outwardly like we are often accustomed too.
This is a great question Judy!
I think part of this comes down to language and what we mean by ‘feeling’. I differentiate between emotion and feelings. Feelings are one part of emotion but certainly not all of it as we also have the nervous system aspect, brain chemicals, sometimes a ‘move to action’, how we experience the emotion somatically and so much more. So I would say that while the emotion is going to be present, there are times when we feel that emotion but don’t express it, and there are times when we experience an emotion but don’t feel it (due to defenses). We explore all of this in much more depth as a part of Focus training when we look at the role of emotion and the ‘flight from vulnerability’- all within the EFW context.
I have a couple of blog posts which touch on it a bit which you may like:
I hope this helps!
Love the indirectness and the words “a lot of mad to get through before we can find the sad”–thanks for sharing this story. Really powerful.
What an incredibly powerful story. I appreciate how going slow allowed her to process her emotions at her own pace and truly experience the power of unconditional positive regard and empathy. How relieved Jasmin must have felt to find a horse (and person) to just let her “be” and accept her for where she is in her journey.
I am so excited to learn more about “One Step Removed” I am challenged by being very direct this is a tool I will love having in my toolbox.
Yes, this can be such a powerful – yet far safer – way to work. Much more coming on this in foundations and focus trainings!
Wow! Such a powerful story with so much wisdom. Thank you! Love the metaphor of Aesop’s fable, force or supporting choice.
I absolutely love this tool and also im in tears. What a beautiful story!
I just love this!! So powerful and such a heart warming story!!!
Lovely to read this story again and such a simple yet powerful tool.