Archives for August, 2012
For those unfamiliar with equine therapy, it seems the most common question is whether or not the horse is going to be ridden. Complicating this question is that for most people, the exposure to equine therapy has been that of therapeutic riding programs. Naturally then, when hearing the words “equine therapy,” the assumption is that the horse will be ridden. In fact, the term equine therapy itself can be a bit misleading, as it is used to describe both therapeutic riding, which of course is done for the physical rehabilitation of those with disabilities, and equine facilitated mental health programs, which are conducted for the psychological rehabilitation of those involved. Making matters even more complicated, one of the largest governing bodies of equine therapy, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), stemmed from the North American Handicapped Riding Association, (NAHRA), and now offers certifications for both the Therapeutic Riding Instructor (who would do mounted work with children with physical disabilities) and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (who would do unmounted work with those with psychological distress).
At its core, cognitive-behavioral therapy encourages balanced thinking. Through examining our thought patterns, and sometimes through the use of thought charts, we can identify characteristic ways of thinking that then lead to uncomfortable emotions. Being able to tolerate both negative and positive emotions toward an object or person is a hallmark of this type of therapy. This concept, referred to by some as having a bi-phasic personality, is also a core component of the development of object constancy. In order to have object constancy, a child must be able to grasp the idea that when something is bad (like an inattentive mother), it is not bad or gone forever. Instead, when the child has achieved object constancy, he/she demonstrates the understanding that a mother can fail to meet his/her needs in one moment, and yet still be a constancy in his/her life, capable of meeting his/her needs.
While conducting a group recently, I was struck by how tentative the members were when I asked the question, “How approachable do you think you are?” Of course, I was asking the members to tell each other. Resistance to authenticity is a natural effect of being human. We all engage in the habit of wanting to protect ourselves form the potential negative impact of THE TRUTH. Of course, the truth we are speaking of is really only our perception, or our truth. Yet, this inherent tendency to avoid revealing what we really think impairs social relationships greatly. How can a person, protected from other people's perceptions of him/her, make any necessary behavioral adjustments?
Working with a 1,500 pound animal alone can be intimidating, but when equine therapy programs are as varied and sometimes loosely structured as they are today, the choice of just where to go to begin can also be quite overwhelming. So what does the potential equine therapy client need to ask to make an informed choice about the right equine therapy program for him/her? Well, as with anything that is active in nature and involves potential risk of injury, the potential equine therapy client should first gain clearance from his/her doctor before beginning an equine therapy program. Following this clearance, however, the client who is interested in equine therapy can be helped by asking the following questions: What would I most like to accomplish through equine therapy? Often people enter therapy because the pain of remaining where they are outweighs the pain of the efforts to change. However, what is often clouded by the pain is just what the person may want to accomplish. I do not mean simply “feeling better,” but pinpointing just what you would like to change.
Riding can teach a person many things. Proprioception, neuromuscular control and balance all are demanded when we sit on the back of a horse. But certainly there is a vibrant emotional contagion occurring separately between the horse and rider. Shared between a rider and his/her horse is a communication that is exclusive to only them. While others can guess what a horse may be sensing or feeling, only his rider truly knows. And conversely, only a horse truly knows what his rider is feeling. Unlike many human social exchanges, that which is shared between the horse and rider is never manufactured, artificial, or forged in any way. Instead, what is thought by the rider is transmitted on a physiological level immediately to the horse, and immediately, the horse reacts.
With all of the media attention around Ann Romney’s horse Rafalca in the Olympic games, the equestrian sport of dressage has certainly been brought to the forefront; interesting many people who would otherwise have no idea what the oldest of all the equestrian divisions actually is. However, I’m not so sure all the coverage is for one thing the most accurate, or for another, the most positive. While Stephen Colbert’s depiction of “fancy prancing” is sure to bring some laughs, as of just today, an article in the New York Daily News slams Mrs. Romney’s horse for the failure of the Americans to medal on the world stage. The reality is that dressage is hard...really hard. To really get a sense of what this sport is like, imagine ice skating while holding a squirmy puppy and trying to navigate a pattern perfectly and beautifully. Horses are much like puppies in that their attention span is not so good, they are incredibly reactive to human emotions and behavior, and in the beginning, they are not terribly coordinated.