Hold your horses
Meet Velcro, "acutely aware" equine therapist
A group of participants prepare for the novel experience of horse-assisted therapy.
It could be any ordinary day at home with our headstrong toddler, my husband and I embroiled in the painfully familiar showdown over purple socks, brushing teeth, Ringo the Beatle, a lack of candy, giraffes for pets and any other object of obdurate resistance we will herewith designate simply as "X."
Except today the obstinate foe is not our three-foot tall daughter, but a 1,200-pound painted horse named Velcro, whom we are supposed to lure through a set of poles as part of an equine therapy session on parenting, offered by a program called Equine Mirrors.
Like our daughter, Velcro has no particular interest in our agenda. Like our daughter, Velcro has decided to opt out of the challenge for no other identifiable reason than X.
According to the rules of this exercise, Peter and I can talk to each other but we aren't allowed to touch, cajole, or bribe Velcro. In the distance and under the watch of an infinitely luckier caretaker, our daughter frolics in the shade while playing nurse to a garden statue. Meanwhile, Velcro stares straight ahead, flippant, impassive, employing the occasional indignant stamp or snort.
I should add that when Velcro snorts, it cascades over us in an all-enveloping gelatinous mist.
I could bore you with the details-the wild gesticulating, the entreaties-but suffice to say it is all too familiar. If you told me 30 minutes ago that controlling a large, peevish horse would remind me so much of the dinner table escapades or wardrobe debacles with my daughter, I would have laughed. But the similarity is shocking.
Did I mention that while this whole thing is happening, two friendly, board-certified psychologists (who also happen to be accomplished riders) are carefully watching? But rather than discomfort from the professional scrutiny, I feel a sense of relief when we regroup. Rebecca and Terri ask nonjudgmental, open-ended questions.
Did our communication with each other make the task easier? Had we considered using other resources inside the ring, or asking for help? Why do we think Velcro didn't respond? And were we projecting something that was or wasn't there?
Well, duh. Of course I was projecting. Anthropomorphism is a rampant behavior pattern (my car hates me, really), especially for the parents of toddlers. Sad-looking pumpkins beg to come home with you, and every inanimate object talks, including socks, alphabet magnets, bath sponges, and stuff my daughter doesn't want to eat.
Maybe Velcro doesn't really hate us. Maybe Velcro was just irritated by the flies swarming around her eyes. Maybe sometimes our daughter refuses to put on her shoes because she's distracted by her new library books, not because she's thinks we're totally lame. Voilà-insight and perhaps a minor epiphany.
So while we may have failed in our efforts to transplant Velcro, that's not really the point of equine-assisted learning. The literature touts it as "high-impact growth and learning exercises" through situations with horses.
On the therapy side, equine programs have become a new-fangled apparatus through which to assess and assist patients. "The arena has become an extension of our office," explains Rebecca Bailey, founder of Equine Mirrors.
A licensed clinical psychologist with her own practice, Rebecca has spent the last 16 years working with an eclectic population of clients, ranging from high-profile divorces to at-risk youth. She's also an inveterate animal lover, and has owned horses since childhood.
Rebecca says she's never been constrained by convention. "I've always thought out of the box and looked for (unconventional) solutions." When she launched Equine Mirrors about a year ago, she was amazed by the universal application of equine therapy to so many people and on so many levels. She says the program has broad appeal because the process is so interactive and non-threatening.
"Horses lighten things up a little. They bring everyone's defenses down. They can make you laugh." For many people, she explains, it's easier to talk about what happens in the arena than to sit and discuss themselves on a couch. It's a "deflective process" that directs focus onto the situation, rather than aiming the analytical bull's eye squarely on participants.
But why horses? Why not dogs or llamas, or even, for that matter, chinchillas?
Horses, says Terri, "are acutely aware of all we say with our nonverbal communication, as they must decide whether we are friend or foe. ...They have the ability to mirror exactly what human body language is telling them."
As an example, Rebecca tells of a family therapy session so wrought with anger that the horse simply lay down, defeated.
Still, the obvious question has to be asked: Isn't this just a little too California? A bit too new-agey?
That, say Rebecca and Terri, is the uphill battle they face, winning credibility and support for an unorthodox method in the eyes of both the public and their professional colleagues. It doesn't hurt that both women hold doctorates in clinical psychology, a data-driven training with an emphasis on objective research.
"We are real therapists hoping to bring some solid psychology to the table," says Rebecca. And they're not exactly doing it in a left-coast bubble. "The rest of the country is actually ahead of (our area)," explains Rebecca. Organizations like EAGALA (Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Associations) are rising in popularity in regions across the United States, and it's not unheard of for well-heeled CEOs to whisk employees away to a ranch-side retreat for some equine-assisted team-building. Terri and Rebecca are both certified through EAGALA, although they "tweak" some of the methods to fit their own style.
"This stuff is not magic," says Rebecca. "Horses aren't (necessarily) intelligent animals. We're not the type to say they have cosmic intuition."
At the same time, Terri adds, "We say it's not magic, but the horses (have a tendency) of not doing what they're supposed to do, but what they need to do." Which is something humans could learn from.
So how does all this apply to Peter and me? Hmmm, sorry you had to ask.
To be perfectly honest, the challenges Peter and I face during our session highlight some rather radical personality differences. When summoned to catch and harness a horse (there are three in the ring) Peter and I strut dutifully off in opposite stylistic and logistical directions. He approaches each horse brandishing the harness in a sort of timorous, "Any takers?" kind of way. My tactic is to first establish a deep and abiding connection with a horse by petting and whispering sweetly into its ear. Problem is, I'm still forging this lasting bond when I notice Peter has already harnessed Lance, the agreeable white mule.
Cop-out, I mutter. Earlier, while Freesia and Velcro grazed indifferently in the shade, Lance was all over the ring like a cheap suit, standing at the ready, or nudging us to make sure we knew he was there. Still, Peter's achievement (he also beat me at Word Challenge today) incites a sudden flurry of activity on my end, during which Freesia recoils from the harness, looking as confused as I am about how it should be worn.
It doesn't take long to confess that Peter and I are a bit competitive. After haggling over various definitions of "harnessing" and what constitutes "cajole," we realize we have a preoccupation with rules and boundaries, but they easily get thrown out the window in the heat of the moment.
Through it all, the horses vacillate between obstinance and servitude, even anticipating our moves. When I flounder about in search of the rope, I swivel around to find Freesia waiting behind me with it in her mouth. When we wonder out loud whether the harness is on correctly, Velcro stares at us blankly and then, ever so gently, shakes it right off. Plop.
Despite our frustrations, Peter and I marvel at small and unexpected epiphanies. Overall, it's a fascinating experience, and as we debrief with Terri and Rebecca, I find myself actually wanting more.
We're not alone. Local clients have included students and teen parents to nonprofit boards, clubs, and coworkers. Most recently, staff from Boys & Girls Club Valley of the Moon participated in an Equine Mirrors team-building workshop, and both Gateway School teens as well as mentors and mentees from the Mentoring Alliance are participating in ongoing courses to improve communication skills.
Ultimately, Rebecca and Terri hope Equine Mirrors will provide Sonomans with a powerful means of learning and growth, and patients in their private practices an alternative means to traditional therapy.
More than anything, Rebecca and Terri are finding people really respond to the methods. "It's fun," says Rebecca. "People have a great time, even as they discover things about themselves."
I agree completely. And to my own list of discoveries I should add this: Never make Velcro eat her vegetables.
To get in touch with Equine Mirrors, visit www.equinemirrors.com or call 707.939.0654.
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA