Attachment, Anxiety, Depression, Self Esteem, Survivors of Abuse, Body Image, Family Conflicts, Addiction…
Attachment is a basic need and drive of all human beings (and horses!) which needs to feel secure for development to proceed as nature intended. While every child naturally possesses what they need to fulfill their potential as a human being, this development is not guaranteed; While we all grow old we do not all grow up!
‘Bad behaviour’ is frequently a sign that a person is developmentally stuck or immature, which is frequently due to their attachment needs not being met. In many cases children pull away from their parents and attach to their peers instead. This can make them very difficult to parent and can hinder their emotional development in numerous ways.
At the severe end of this ‘detachment’ continuum we find Reactive Attachment Disorder where individuals actively push away those who feel too close in favour of more superficial attachments.
Fortunately it is never too late to work on attachment, no matter how bad things may seem. And animals can play a wonderful role in rebuilding these relationships. Children (and adults!) will often attach to an animal when people no longer feel safe. This positive attachment can be the starting point and the bridge to a relationship with the human counsellor, parents and other positive adults in the person’s life. The approach at Healing Hooves is consistent with the developmental paradigm of the internationally renowned psychologist, and author of best seller “Hold on to you Kids”, Dr. Gordon Neufeld – www.gordonneufeld.com – with whom Sue McIntosh has extensive training. This understanding of attachment and development influences all of the approaches and benefits of the Healing Hooves programs including those noted below.
Individuals with Anxiety
Research has shown that simply spending time with animals can help people with anxiety. This can be particularly effective when combined with counselling. For example, a calming animal will have both a calming influence and act as a role model. Interactions might include grooming, relaxation, breathing and visualization exercises (both on the ground and on horseback). These approaches can help reduce and replace dysfunctional and harmful responses to anxiety and alarm, including self medication. Other times clients might work with a more anxious animal to whom the client relates, projects their own feelings and thoughts onto, and they help each other find ways to understand and address the anxiety that they live with. In many cases the attachment a clients builds with an animal, and then with the human counselor, can allow a client enough safety and space to start to understand and address the true underlying sources of the anxiety and alarm they are living with.
Individuals facing Depression
Research has also shown spending time with animals can help alleviate symptoms of depression, and when combined with counselling this bond can be especially healing. Interactions with horses can show clients the effect that depression is having upon their lives and relationships and both motivate and help create the safety required for clients to understand the issues they are facing and to make changes.
Animals are non judgmental, genuine and show unconditional love. Realizing that a horse thinks you are a great person can have a wonderfully healing effect. It can help you feel safe and encourage you to allow yourself to feel vulnerable in a relationship. In short animals remind us how, and help make it safe, to care – about them, about other people and about ourselves.
Learning new skills with horses and seeing the positive results of your work can also have a wonderful impact on self esteem. A client may start off very self critical focusing upon what they perceive as their ‘weaknesses’ and ‘mistakes’ – however, when they acknowledge the horses’ imperfections and still accept them as they are and see them as ‘good’, they are able to start being more forgiving with themselves. Animals can help us give and receive true grace in our lives.
Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Violence
Animal Assisted Therapy can be particularly effective with clients who are survivors of abuse and can help them address issues of trust, power, boundaries, touch and much more. Contact with horses can be of great comfort and can help clients feel safe to talk. Sometimes we will simply talk about the horses and their experiences; in time, if and when it feels safe to the client we can start to touch on the client’s experiences. For some, the horse can be a symbol of power. Survivors of abuse sometimes see the horse as a metaphor for how they feel towards the perpetrator of the abuse and within other relationships. Through various groundwork exercises, this client could work to regain their sense of personal power, control and boundaries in the presence of the horse, which can open the door to experiencing this in other relationships.
Added to this, many of the horses and other animals at Healing Hooves are also survivors of violence and abuse. This leads to a special level of empathy and understanding between a client and ‘their’ horse as they realise they have both walked along the same path.
Issues of self care can be addressed through the horses. This can begin by exploring the horses’ physical and emotional needs through discussion, and by meeting those needs. The understanding of these needs (including how they are met, who helps, and what happens when they are not met) can then be transferred to the client’s own needs.
Further, a certain level of strength and activity is needed to interact with or ride hoses. For some individuals this can provide the motivation to learn and practice better self-care. The horses also present a variety of different ‘body shapes’ and a very different perspective on this than that of many people, and from that presented in much of the media viewed by our children and youth.
Families – including parent/ teen conflict
At Healing Hooves we recommend that wherever possible we work with a family rather than with just one part of the family. This may mean parent consults, family counselling sessions or both. Our goal is to help parents see their children in a different way and from there to reclaim their natural and loving power as parents. We aim to help the children we work with feel secure in the unconditional love of their parents.
Horses, and our interactions with them, provide us with many life lessons which can be applied to parenting. They show and remind us of what we already know – very simply, intuitively and naturally.
Sometimes this will take the form of family interactions with a horse which highlight family dynamics, leading to insight and better understanding to be explored and applied when the family is ready. For example, clients may take part in an activity or task with the horses which parallels what is happening at home. While one exercise may involve the family working together with a horse, another might put them into conflict. Dynamics, roles and responsibilities are often much easier to see, accept and change when gently presented, one step removed, by a horse.
Individuals not responding well to other therapies
Working with animals can be very effective for children and teenagers who are not able or do not want to sit in an office and talk to a ‘stranger’. Horses often provide the initial motivation, helping to overcome the initial fears, and to build the bridge to a relationship with the counselor. They also help to foster long term motivation and commitment to the therapeutic process. The biggest challenge at Healing Hooves is often termination of counselling as none of our clients ever want to leave!
Individuals facing Addictions
Equine facilitated approaches can help clients focus on health through the horses and introduce them to the ‘natural high’ and excitement they can get from working with horses. When working with addictions the most significant factors for success are usually the existence of a strong attachment to a safe adult, the ability of that adult to take charge of the addicted person’s circumstances and the buy in of the person with the addiction. These are all factors that can be worked upon and developed through sessions with the horses.
For safety reasons someone currently under influence of drugs or alcohol would not be allowed on or near a horse. When working with clients with addictions Healing Hooves usually recommends a combined approach with a counsellor or program specializing in the specific addiction the client is facing.
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