Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Taxi Driver’s Timely Comment on Brain Plasticity

Since I started writing blogs a few months ago I have realized that there are some things worth writing about that may just be like a mini blog – of which this is one.
I was recently travelling by taxi to give a talk in Sydney on childhood trauma and recovery from it. I’m never certain exactly how I will start off a talk and usually just see whatever occurs at the time. The taxi driver was a man in his mid-20s from Nepal who had been living in Australia for 3-4 years. During the two weeks I was in Australia – I heard some fascinating stories and interesting views of many taxi drivers, from Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Iran, Greece and Turkey among others.  Occasionally we sat in silence for most of a journey, but generally a conversation ensued.

The Nepalese driver and I were talking about different weather climates. How it could be very hot during Sydney summers, cold but not too cold in the winter. He said that Nepal had a moderate climate, warm most of the year round. I mentioned Ireland, maybe unfairly, where I said they have a few warm sunny days a year and it rains a lot of the time. I had recently been told by an Irish friend that it had been raining every day for 2 months! However, I said people get used to what is normal for them and probably don’t mind so much.

Just before I got out of the car the taxi driver said ‘the human being is like rubber’. An excellent and timely observation on the plasticity of the human brain, which I would soon be talking about - in relation to the potential for recovery from trauma. Possibly, it was also a reflection on how immigrants might adjust to their new environments. It also showed me that just by listening and paying attention, we can be provided with insights and gifts when we least expect them! Maybe those are the best kind of gifts. His comment certainly helped get my talk off to a good start.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why Horses can be so Therapeutic in Work with Traumatized Children and Young People

The first 14 years of my career was in a therapeutic community for boys who were traumatized due to abuse and neglect. The Cotswold Community was situated on a 365 acre farm. I have often wondered how much of the boys’ healing was gained from living on the farm and spending so much time doing activities and being outside.

In more recent years, many research studies have highlighted the benefits of therapies that connect people to the natural world. For example, wilderness therapy, equine therapy and the therapeutic use of pets and animals.  As well as these types of activity contributing to the recovery from trauma we also know that they can be generally helpful in reducing stress and improving other health conditions. I believe many of these approaches are what Bruce Perry (2004) has termed ‘biologically respectful’ because they connect people to their genetic predispositions.

I invite people who have particularly interesting and innovative perspectives the opportunity to write a guest blog. This is the first guest blog and I am delighted to introduce Debbie Woolfe and her organization Stable Relationships, which is based in Telford, West Midlands, UK. 

Patrick Tomlinson

Stable Relationships is an organisation that has recently been set up to enable more children, young people, staff and carers to have access to emotionally intelligent, therapeutic and training activities involving horses.

All our programmes combine the theories of child development and trauma with the practicalities of equine based experiential learning. Many of our activities are based on the Epona approach (Linda Kohanov, The Tao of Equus, 2001).

Horses are prey animals so their first response is that of fight, flight and freeze. They communicate non-verbally by picking up on the energetic waves of emotion in their herd, in order to stay safe. This makes them hypervigilant and excellent at reading the emotions of anyone they interact with. Our approach is based on the knowledge that we need to be calm in order to build relationships and learn. Horses are most able to complete tasks successfully when the people working with them are able to be emotional leaders. This usually involves the people becoming calm as the first step towards any activity.

Horses respond to their environment and people interacting with them in similar ways to traumatised people, which makes them excellent at helping staff who work with these people.

Through the work with horses, staff are better able to understand the impact they can have and develop new strategies to improve their working practice. For example, we do an activity where a staff member approaches a horse with the goal of it touching them on the back of the hand.  The horse is loose in a space. The person has to become aware of their own feelings of excitement, vulnerability and fear within the challenge, and manage these feelings to become calm.  They also have to notice tiny movements within the horse, such as a flick of the ear or a swish of the tail. When they see these things they understand how sensitive a horse (and the children/young people they work with) can be.  They develop practical strategies for approaching in a way that promotes maximum calm.  Self-awareness is a large part of the course and staff have reported it impacting their personal as well as professional lives.

Part of our young person course involves them setting boundaries with horses. As a horse approaches they notice and rate their feelings as it moves. They are taught how to stop a horse coming closer than they want and are given the opportunity of experiencing and regulating their own arousal levels and emotions as it approaches. For young people who have experienced various types of abuse or who struggle to regulate higher levels of emotion, this experience can be highly empowering.  

We also take horses out to schools to teach emotional intelligence sessions. Children work through various tasks to help them feel calm, observe and become aware of the messages behind their emotions, and learn how it feels to be trusted and trustworthy.  One activity involves leading horses through various obstacles. The horses need to have a high level of trust in the young person to face obstacles, which may feel challenging to the horse. For a young person to achieve the task successfully they need to be calm, take things at the pace of the horse, keep the horse safe, communicate effectively with it and encourage it.

Finally, we offer creative curriculum sessions for young people who may struggle to engage with classroom based types of learning. The outdoor environment with all its noises, smells, space and practical learning opportunities is excellent at engaging young people in learning. Our horses recently helped us teach Macbeth to a group of young people from a special school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. After orienteering to find and read parts of the Macbeth story, the horses were painted with Macbeth group symbols, and ridden, once the young people had answered Macbeth quiz questions.

Stable Relationships is in its very early days. However, we have seen the amazing impact our work has. We are lucky enough to regularly see young people work so well with each other and their horse. Often these are young people who are having major difficulties in their relationships due to very challenging behaviour. We are privileged to regularly see young people who won’t walk past a horse, riding one a few weeks later. We are inspired as we see staff and carers who are demoralised and exhausted realising that they are more powerful and effective than they ever imagined. All our horse based work is experiential and due to this, knowledge becomes wisdom at an accelerated rate.

Here are a couple of brief anonymised examples of our experiences,


We have a young person Ben who has been doing our course for 6 weeks now, so he is halfway through. He attends a special school and his referral form said he has autism and depression. When he started he was very withdrawn and the first week he refused to leave the cabin, to even walk past the horses, never mind work with them.

As the weeks have progressed he has become far more confident with the situation and the horses. He has developed a stronger relationship with his carer and is able to ask her for help when he needs it, which was one of his key objectives. During the early weeks the carer did most of the horse based activities and Ben watched, seemingly not too engaged. However, as the weeks have gone on, he has become much more involved. He now takes the lead with all the horse based activities, asks questions, and speaks to everyone involved about his internal processes and views. His carer has reported that he doesn’t seem depressed any more, and he tells her that visiting us is the best part of his week.

During his last session we were working on rating our own stress levels as we worked with quite a large horse (actually the largest we have). The carer rated herself as having higher levels of stress than Ben. At first I thought he may not have been entirely honest but the horses always know!  His task involved leading the horse around various obstacles that she hadn’t seen before. She is quite a flighty horse, and was much less willing to go with his carer. The carer was trying to stay calm and talk gently to the horse, encouraging her to move with her.  She did go, but was very hesitant and unsure and kept freezing, before continuing on.  When Ben had a turn, she went willingly. She tried new obstacles and was completely engaged and attentive to Ben throughout the whole task. He was so calm and focused, and that impacted on the horse. It demonstrated very clearly that it is a person's internal feelings that have the biggest impact on horses, and people around them.  Ben had been truthful about his levels of calm and it had been clearly shown by the horse’s response. For him and his carer, having experienced that level of calm in a potentially challenging situation was an eye opener. We were able to discuss other potentially challenging situations, away from the horses, where Ben now thought it may be more possible to stay calm.  He just needed to re-create the feeling that he had just experienced. He could recall the experience he had just had, and recapture the feeling of calm. It was also a big breakthrough in terms of his self-esteem. He is well aware of how far he has come, from not wanting to walk past a horse, to leading around the biggest one at the stables.


Another example comes from a school we visited last week. We take the horses to work with groups of up to 8 children for a 2 hour emotional intelligence programme. Amie who is 8 years old has had 4 placement moves since June.  Her teacher reported that she had very challenging behaviour and showed no fear or concern for others. She worked well with horses and was excellent at spotting the emotions in them. When it came to the end of the session she was hugging her horse and didn’t want to leave it. We gave her some time and she gave the horse a carrot as a good ending. However, it seemed to impact her teacher more. She started to cry because she said she had never seen her show feelings for any other being before. We are used to seeing these reactions but it is always a humbling reminder of the power of the horses, and the differences they are able to make just by being themselves.

Debbie Woolfe

For more information please contact:

This is a book on Equine Therapy that may be of Interest,

And an interesting website

LEAP Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy & Learning,


Kohanov, L. (2001) The Tao of Equus: A Woman's Journey of Healing and Transformation through the Way of the Horse, California: New World Library,

Perry, B.D. (2004) Maltreatment and the Developing Child: How Early Childhood Experience Shapes Child and Culture, Margaret McCain lecture on September 23, 2004,


Jenny Huston, Qualified Therapeutic Foster Carer and Person Centred Counsellor, England

I have horses and many other furies that over the years of fostering have proven to be a gateway for my children and young people to start their journey of trust again. I feel they can teach/show us so many things and provide a great sense of belonging, responsibility and empathy without any words spoken.

Patrick Tomlinson

Here is a further blog by Debbie on her therapeutic work with children and horses

A brief video about Stable Relationships from the UK Channel 5 TV channel, showing horses and children in a school,

A Few books recommended by people who read this blog,

Emma Speaks: A Journey into the Soul of an Animal Friend,

Horse as Teacher: The Path to Authenticity,

The Children of Raquette Lake: One Summer That Helped Change the Course of Treatment for Autism,