Why Children and Horses Heal Together

for mentors for parents for program directors Oct 09, 2015
The sun kissed my face and filled me with excitement. It was my first year in Georgia and never had I experienced a 70 degree mid-November day. I moved to Georgia in June of 2013 at the invitation of my father. Since I had spent my entire life in Vermont up until that point, I welcomed the opportunity for an adventure and to broaden my horizons. After graduating with a degree in social work from the University of Vermont, I had been working with children who had been adopted out of states custody. I learned a great deal regarding therapeutic interventions for children surviving with trauma. I discovered that positive relationships were, without a doubt, the single most important factor contributing to the growth and development of these kids. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you accomplished, if you made it on time to an appointment or that your child acted appropriately in the grocery store. What matters is that you maintain a positive relationship with your child. 
One of the most rewarding parts of my job was working with the parents. I enjoyed the honest conversations which took place in the middle of organized chaos. I admired the parent's strength to manage their children's daily tantrums, routines and activities. More often, I was humbled by their ability to tell me that they felt their parenting wasn't working, that they were broken or that sometimes they even wanted to give up. Throughout my work, I became aware of the many correlations between therapeutic parenting interventions and natural horsemanship. I began riding horses when I was nine and I started buying, training and selling horses off the racetrack in my teens. I became a student of natural horsemanship when I failed to communicate effectively with these amazingly athletic and majestic animals. Natural horsemanship taught me many of the qualities I would later learn, in a different capacity, as a social worker. The principles were basic and based on herd behavior. None of the techniques were punitive, they simply rewarded desired behavior. To be harsh with a horse would only prove their worst fear to be true, that humans could not be trusted. 
Similarly, children surviving with trauma have learned that people can't be trusted. Parenting hasn't worked for them. Their brain development has been stunted and they have a heightened sense of awareness regarding their survival. These children believe, at their core, that they are bad and unworthy of care. They are extremely skeptical of anyone who tries to tell them otherwise. They use their behavior to provoke reactions, which prove the self-fulfilling prophecy of their own innate worthlessness.
In both natural horsemanship and therapeutic interventions regarding trauma, I learned to be clear in my directives and to reward quickly once a desired behavior is displayed. I learned to celebrate successes even when I had to stretch to come up with one, i.e., the horse/child didn't bite me today. I found that a big part of building trust was allowing time. “I know you're scared, or angry, but I'll stick this out with you. I'll validate that you're not ready right now and for whatever reason, this is tough. I get that.” I learned from supervisors in both the areas of mental health and horsemanship, that we're often so attached to an outcome that we forget to build trust, which is the very thing that is lacking. I would say, “I couldn't get the kid to calm down” or “The horse never made it over the jump.” It was a huge shift for me to realize that it was not about the jump, or any end result. It's about the relationship. Sure, you can beat a kid or horse to get them to do what you want them to do, but, at the end of the day, they no longer trust you, and, you’ve proven to them that they don't matter. When my focus was on the relationship, I was able build trust and eventually get different results because of that trust. 
The most amazing part of this therapeutic process is that you're actually allowed to make mistakes. There were times when I would sit in my supervisor’s office in tears swearing that I had ruined a family for life. I believed that I sucked at my job as nothing I tried in my little social worker tool bag had worked. She would always respond, “Rebecca, that is perfect! Now you know what the parents deal with and feel like all day long.” She would simply tell me to go back into the home and acknowledge where I wasn't patient, or curious or compassionate enough, and try again. I would engage in a relationship building activity in order to model what repair looks like to the parents. I learned to approach every encounter with curiosity and empathy. To say “that's interesting” instead of “that's wrong.” 
Finally, I was able to let go of my expectations; the ones I had for the children, for the parents, for the horses and the ones I thought they held for me. It was letting go that truly allowed me to be present and human with everyone.
I feel so blessed that my Georgia path has been more adventurous and diverse than I could ever have imagined. It is truly a dream come true to have started a program that provides present, honest, reliable relationships that both horses and children need so much. It's the stable moments in life that allow us to feel safe enough to reflect, connect, and grow.

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