“Please just tell me what to do.”

Isn’t this something we all ask at times?

I hear it from Travis, a single Dad whose adopted daughter has just been diagnosed with ODD.

And from Anna, who has recently completed her first training with Healing Hooves and is eager to get started.

I get it. I’ve asked the same thing myself.

I attended my first Equine Facilitated Wellness (EFW) training in 1998. Equipped with my counselling degree, years of horse experience and now this training, I was eager to start seeing clients as soon as possible. Just one little problem. I had very little idea what to actually DO in an EFW session, and that terrified me. “Isn’t there a manual?” I asked, when it hadn’t appeared by day three of the training. I was hoping for something with step by step plans and exercises for every presenting problem and scenario, preferably organised by DSM category.

“No,” my wise mentor replied, “and if there was, I wouldn’t give it to you.”

Now I was frustrated as well as terrified. Not to mention overwhelmed.

My mentor didn’t abandon me there though. After that training (the first of several) she guided me to find practicum placements and opportunities to do my own work; to experience EFW and decide what fits for me.  She and other mentors also supported my exploration of different approaches to understanding and working with people and horses – including attachment, connected horsemanship and polyvagal theory – and to integrate these into my EFW approach.

This all took longer than I had initially hoped, and my practice developed gradually. Yet it allowed me to create a program that reflected my and my equine partners’ unique strengths, scope of practice and individual passions.

Reflecting back I wonder where I’d be now if someone had given me a manual?  I imagine I’d have been initially ecstatic and significantly less anxious and frustrated. I could have jumped straight in after my week of training, confident I knew what to do.  But would this have allowed me space – and impetus – to discover and create my own unique contributions to this field?

And what about when my equine partners – who wouldn’t read the manual – had other ideas?

I got a partial answer a few years later.  EFW was relatively new in Alberta and I’d agreed to host a practice day for new practitioners. One of them facilitated an exercise with my clients, a teenage boy and his father, that involved linking arms and haltering a horse.  The facilitator read the ‘rules’ for the exercise from his manual (he had a different mentor than me) and it seemed simple enough.

Dubh, our equine partner, disagreed.

In fact he took one look at the four legged, two headed being approaching him and ran. Referring to his manual the facilitator directed my clients to keep trying. Meanwhile my young client was agitated with being asked to pursue Dubh, who he knew needs space to process things.  Rather like this young man himself.  So he started to push back a little, muttering several choice words.  His father, aware of the audience, stared pointedly at his son with each expletive.  I approached the facilitator and suggested that perhaps he try a different approach? He informed me that a goal of the exercise was to encourage persistence so it was important they didn’t give up. Ultimately, with some support from me, my young client was brave enough to break the ‘no talking’ rule and tell his Dad he didn’t want to confuse Dubh anymore. The facilitator wanted to impose the pre-determined ‘fun consequence’ for not achieving the goal – I believe they were to sing “I’m a little teapot” – but after another look at my client, I shut it down.

I called my mentor that night and said thank you.

She didn’t give me what I wanted back then, she gave me what I needed.

Nowadays when a student asks me to ‘tell them what to do’ I share this and other stories from my early years in the field and encourage them to hang in there.  Sometimes I share the image of providing a map versus a set of directions.  Directions are usually simpler and quicker to develop and learn.  But what happens when something doesn’t go according to plan?  An accident or a road closure?  Directions dumb you down in anything but the most straightforward of scenarios, maps allow you to think for yourself to find your own way through. Or to take the scenic route, the road less travelled, if that’s what works for you.

This all dovetails well with my approach to working with parents. When a parent asks, “What do I do when … “ I have learned to answer this question with another question:

“What do you see?”

My job as a parent consultant is to provide my clients with the insight to be informed by their child’s behaviours to find the why. Once they have this insight they no longer need to ask me what to do.  They discover that they already know, because they have a map.

The other reframe I aim for is to see past the presenting ‘want’ to the underlying ‘need’.

Because one thing I’ve learned we all – two and four legged – have in common is that all our behaviour has a purpose, and in many cases it is an expression of an underlying unmet need.

Another example may help. When my children were young they would sometimes beg me to stay in and play rather than go to work. With a client and babysitter about to arrive, giving them what they wanted in that moment was not a great option. But their request reminded me of their underlying, and very natural, attachment needs:  To know that they mattered to me more than my work, and to feel held on to by me while I wasn’t right there with them. So I gave them big hugs, told them how much I was looking forward to baking cookies with them later that afternoon, and whispered that would be my favourite part of the day, because it was spent with them.

It’s so tempting to meet the want though.

When Travis, or Anna, ask me what they should do I swear there’s a hyper-active fix-it part of me that is desperate to jump all over these requests with answers galore. I’m suddenly elevated into the expert role and here’s someone desperately asking me for my superior directions. It would feel so good to indulge us both for a while.

The infamous quote of highly contested origin, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” immediately comes to mind.

Do my clients – or students – really need to depend on me for all their answers? Or can I step away from my own ego wants and empower them to find their own answers? Provide them with a map, or help them create their own, and invite them to navigate their own route?

Yet it can take time to teach someone how to fish, especially when they arrive hungry. Perhaps there is a way to meet both the short and the long term needs in those we seek to help in life? Sometimes examples, and enough space for expression, can allow us to alleviate some of the short term ‘want’ while also meeting the underlying, and usually longer term, need.

Travis has reached out after a difficult week with a list of ‘what do I do’ questions, sent in advance by e-mail.  I get it. Chloe, his daughter, has huge attachment wounds and needs that are often expressed through demands and tantrums. I don’t think either of them get much sleep.  So, I remind myself to seek and respond to the needs underlying Travis’s requests, before supporting him to do the same for Chloe.  Jumping out of his vehicle, Travis’s voice is elevated and I can see the tears he’s fighting to hold back. We sit outside the pasture, the horses off grazing in the distance. Checking in with my own breath I make space for Travis to talk. To be heard and validated.  To remember that he really is a good Dad, despite what his mother in law said that morning, and he’s trying his best. When our barn cat Max climbs onto Travis’s knee and tries to lick his face, I see the first smile of the morning as he gently but firmly redirects Max to curl up on his lap instead. We transition on to ‘horse time’ through some five senses awareness.

For several minutes all we hear is Max’s purrs and the occasional snort from the nearby herd.

Before long, our older mare, Disa, approaches the fence and perks her ears in our direction.  Oliver, the smallest member of our herd, is just behind her alternating nipping at the back of Disa’s legs, shoving into her side, and turning to make faces at Teddy, the next smallest.

“Why’s the little guy bothering Disa like that?” Travis asks “That’s not cool. She should tell him to smarten up. Or maybe we should go in there and move him away from her?”

“Hmm,” I murmur, “I think maybe Disa’s got this.”

Disa repositions herself so Oliver can’t reach to shove or nip her, and starts to nuzzle his shoulder. Oliver becomes very still.

Travis and I step towards the fence so we can give Disa a scratch and soon both ponies’ eyes are closed. I share a little of Oliver’s history, how he came from the auction and we didn’t know much about his life before coming here.

“He does sometimes get pushy with the other horses,” I share, “but Disa seems to get that he just needs some attention and reassurance. Along with a few boundaries.”

“Disa does that so naturally,” Travis noted, “unlike me.”

“Yet you did it with Max earlier without even thinking,” I reminded him.

For the rest of the session Travis identifies all the ways in which Chloe is like Oliver and how he can respond as Disa has inspired.  He has the start of a map to work with.

How I support clients is guided and informed by my map. I draw from the many examples the animals, and our interactions with the animals, offer us and I’m guided by my training in attachment and other parts of my map to help me identify the needs potentially underlying my client’s wants and behaviours.  Sometimes this means sitting with clients when they don’t know what to do and NOT giving them answers. Rather make space for them to express whatever needs to be expressed and then journey with them as they find their own answers. Sometimes providing examples of what has worked for myself and others I’ve supported can help. With it remaining up to the client which examples they may or may not draw upon or learn from.

I follow the same approach with my students when they ask me to just tell them what to do. I share my map. I provide lots of examples. And I create opportunities to experience and practice this work. But ultimately my goal is to guide and support each and every one of my students to create their own personal maps for EFW.  One which is unique to them and informed by their, and their equine partners’, individual strengths, scope of practice and passions, and how these best come together in unique partnership.

Fully acknowledging the risk of mixing too many metaphor I’m going to add one more.  When not entered into within the context of healthy relationship you will have an idea, and not a dance.  You could read all about how to dance the tango, memorise the steps and practice them in front of a mirror; but the beauty of the dance only arises when you dance with a partner. And for this to be beautiful rather than a mess of stepping on toes and pulling each other in different directions, your dance has to incorporate mutual feel, connection, respect and understanding of the partners. In my experience, one partner following a set of instructions provided by someone outside of the relationship doesn’t allow enough space for us to feel – and sometimes accept or even invite the lead from – the other partner/s or even ourselves. Learning to dance involves lots of practice, making mistakes, learning from them and finding your own way through. In the case of EFW there are several partners involved as you have the equines as well as the clients, and each partnership is going to differ. I explored this through an example many years ago in the article ‘Dancing with Skye’ which I encourage you to read. A key part of EFW for me is understanding my equine partners as intelligent sentient beings who bring so much to this work without ever being told ‘what to do’. Ideas are important, as is the process of continual learning and gaining knowledge.  But for this to all become wisdom takes time and, I believe, can only happen within the context of relationship – with yourself, your clients and your equines.

This will all take longer, and very likely create more short term frustration, than providing everyone with a ‘how to’ manual.

But I think the long terms results are worth it.

© Copyright Sue McIntosh, Cremona, 2024

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