This blog post is part of a series exploring the value and benefits of spending time with horses and other animals, including within a therapeutic environment. Previous posts have introduced the series, provided a brief overview of the research, explored how the presence of animals can make it safe to seek help, explored  what we have in common with horses  and how this creates opportuities for us to learn from animals as relatable role models.

Today’s post explores another benefit of recognising all we share with horses: to draw upon this within a psychoeducation approach.

What Do We Mean By Psychoeducation?

The term psychoeducation is generally used within counselling and healthcare to describe the process of sharing information with clients, their family members and the public in general regarding mental health diagnoses and concerns. This would include the impact of medications, the impact of mental health conditions upon behaviour and functioning, and information regarding strategies for managing all of the above. Research has indicated that a psychoeducation approach serves to destigmatise mental health concerns and to increase the likelihood of people engaging and succeeding in counselling and other approaches which provide help and support. More information is available here.

Extended Understanding

I like to extend the above description to include the process of sharing information with people about natural emotional, cognitive and behavioural functioning and processes, including where these can get stuck or otherwise become problematic, such as when we experience struggles in life and/ or feel overwhelmed. This serves to further destigmatise counselling and related services recognising that we all struggle at times and this does not mean that there is anything ‘wrong’ with us or with our need to seek out support.

At Healing Hooves our psychoeducation model is grounded in the attachment and developmental model and approach taught by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and the human animal bond research. We teach this theory throughout our equine and animal assisted training workshops, they guide and inform all of our therapeutic stories, and they frequently form a part of our counselling and support sessions with clients of all ages.

Approaching Psycheducation ‘One Step Removed’

A key aspect of our approach at Healing Hooves is recognising that talking directly about something is not always the best way:

Some pain is just too painful to touch directly. Some words may not 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; they give us the ability to function within an otherwise intolerable world. However, in the longer term staying ‘stuck’ in these defenses will stand in the way of our healing. 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 stronger defenses. For our most vulnerable children, for the hurts that hurt too much, for sensitivities that are too much to bear, we can still find our way through, just one step removed.”
Excerpt from One Horse Step Removed

The same principal frequently applies to psychoeducation.  Often talking directly about what may be happening for a client – emotionally, cognitively, socially or behaviourally – is not the most effective approach.  This may be due to defenses and vulnerability as discussed above.

Or perhaps we simply see things more clearly when they are about someone or something other than ourselves.

Either way approaching psychoeducation ‘one stepped removed’ can often be more effective; and animals, because of all we share with them and the emotionally safety they can provide, provide us plenty of opportunities to do this.

Building Animals into Psychoeducation

An advantage of our shared biology is the option to talk with clients about how our brains – and sometimes our bodies – function and behave, in a way people may find both easier to understand and safer to acknowledge. We are also able to observe many of these processes experientially and ‘in action’ by watching and interacting with the animals. This provides us with endless opportunities to normalise, validate and put words to emotional processes and responses which a client may be struggling with on a variety of levels.

Some Examples

The following examples explore three key areas we frequently explore with clients using a psycheducation approach starting with the animals’ experiences – through either observation, experiential interactions or storytelling with and about the animals.

Integrative Functioning (the ability to experience two or more different thoughts or feelings at the same time) is a critical developmental process. When it works well, it cultivates many wonderful qualities including self control, perspective, true courage, patience and the ability to work towards a goal.

Conversely, when someone is ‘non integrative’ they are more likely to be impulsive, aggressive, impatient, and prone to pendulum reactions. While integrative ability is something that develops in the human brain over time (starting not before age 5 and continuing till past age 25) it is not inevitable, especially when a person has experienced trauma or separation from attachments. Thus, integration and the existence of ‘mixed feelings’ is something we regularly aim to support during a client session. Fortunately, the horses provide us with lots of opportunities to witness and normalise mixed feelings and to educate our clients about this important part of our brain.

For example, when we head out to the pasture and our horse takes a step in our direction then stops; this is an opportunity to explore whether part of that horse want to come spend time with us, but part of him is feeling sleepy, or wants to hang out with the herd today.  It is a great opportunity to normalise the horse’s conflicting wishes.

Or when the horse notices something new in the arena this provides an opportunity to explore how the horse may be both curious and scared of the new object. We can make space for the horse to (safely) express both of these feelings and from there come to his decision about whether to approach or retreat.

And when one of our cats jumps onto a comfy spot on the couch that is already occupied we can speculate what the cat who claimed the spot first may do and why: defend ‘her’ spot on the couch, share, or flee.

In each case we can observe, put words to and normalise the animal experiencing multiple, and often conflicting, feelings or thoughts. From there, depending on the client, we may discuss how this also happens in people’s brains.  Many of my clients have been relieved to hear that arguing with yourself is actually a sign of maturity, and that this process gets easier as you get older.

Alarm is a normal and healthy emotion in all mammals, including humans. It is designed to keep us safe and out of harm’s way. Yet many people misunderstand this and aim for an alarm free life, or they stuck in the process of alarm leading to high levels of anxiety, agitation and adrenaline. Again, we can see and talk about this by watching our animals:

“Skye, a 27 year old Arabian gelding and our herd leader, provides a great example of what alarm looks like in a non human mammal. When something unexpected happens, he notices immediately; his head comes up, his ears and eyes are alert. Skye stops whatever he was doing and assesses the situation. If he decides a real threat exists he runs, and his herd usually follows his lead. Skye’s body just produced adrenaline and cortisol, which he uses to move himself to safety. If instead he calls the alarm false, as is often the case, I will usually see him releasing that adrenaline and cortisol, often through licking and chewing, and he is able to return to whatever he was doing before. The emotion of alarm has been experienced, processed and released, and calm is now restored.”
From our article: Is No Fear a Good Thing?

If we are paying attention our animals consistently provide us with the opportunity to talk with clients about both what a healthy alarm process looks like in practice and what happens when things don’t work so well.  First we observe it in the animals, then we explain it.  Sometimes we can ask the clients to tell us what they think is happening for the horse. Either way it provides a non-threatening way to engage in psychoeducation.  Again, if and when the client is ready, we can start to transfer these discussions to human brain processes and their own personal experiences.

Frustration is a core emotion experience by all mammals, including humans, and one which problem

An almost daily scene at Healing Hooves is provided by our border collie, Maggie, who has huge instincts to chase anything that moves, including the horses. We could choose to see Maggie’s behaviour as inappropriate, dangerous and annoying. All of which can be true. We thus do everything we can to keep Maggie and the horses safe, by controlling the circumstances through fencing, supervision and training, and redirecting Maggie to chase something safer (her ball) when her instincts overpower her.

Yet this ‘inappropriate behaviour’ presents us with great opportunity. Opportunity to talk about what is going on for Maggie with children – and adults -who may be experiencing similar emotions and also engaging in behaviours which have been deemed inappropriate, dangerous or annoying. If you’d like to see this example explored in more depth, check out our article, Life Lessons from a Border Collie: E-motion Needs to Move

Every day I am grateful to my animals for all that they do to make my work possible and to provide both my clients and myself with all these opportunities to learn, heal and grow. In fact I distinctly remember a job interview from almost twenty years ago when I was presented with a number of client scenarios and asked “what would you do?”  All my responses involved interacting with, observing or talking about an animal. Since the interview was for a job within a non animal context my answers did not lead to my being hired! And that is something else I am grateful for as it helped lead to the existence of Healing Hooves!

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