Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why Horses can be so Therapeutic in Work with Traumatized Children and Young People – Part Two, One Year on!

A year ago Debbie Woolfe, founder of Stable Relationships wrote a guest blog on her work in providing Equine Assisted Learning to children and young people,

I explained then my reasons for interest in this subject. During the last year my research has continued to confirm the view that therapeutic work with children and young people (also adults), which involves the use of nature has great potential.  During the same time, Debbie’s venture has shown great innovation, which has captured the interest of the media in the UK. In the last year her organization, Stable Relationships has been featured in two national newspapers, TV and radio.  She has taken her horses and team across England and into inner city schools, where many children had never previously been able to see and touch a real horse.  This is a great TV clip, seeing the children’s responses to meeting horses in their school

As I said, research supports the relevance of this work.  Bessel van der Kolk (2014, p.80) states,

“In the past two decades it has become widely recognized that when adults or children are too skittish or shut down to derive comfort from human beings, relationships with other mammals can help.  Dogs and horses and even dolphins offer less complicated companionship while providing the necessary sense of safety. Dogs and horses, in particular, are now extensively used to treat some groups of trauma patients.”* 


“After multiple suicide attempts Maria was placed in one of our residential treatment centers.  Initially she was mute and withdrawn and became violent when people got too close to her.  After other approaches failed to work, she was placed in an equine therapy program where she groomed her horse daily and learned simple dressage.  Two years later I spoke with Maria at her high school graduation. She had been accepted by a four-year college.  When I asked her what had helped her most, she answered, “The horse I took care of.” She told me that she first started to feel safe with her horse: he was there every day, patiently waiting for her, seemingly glad upon her approach. She started to feel a visceral connection with another creature and began to talk to him like a friend.  Gradually she started talking with the other kids in the program and, eventually, with her counsellor.” (p. 150-151)

Debbie’s new blog describes her journey of the last year and shows how ‘Stable Relationships’ is such an apt name for her organization.  Relationships are central to the work, between her team and the horses, between each other, with the children and their carers, and between children and the horses.  The horses become the focal point within which learning and healing relationships can take place.  Debbie explains important aspects of the work that involves horses.  However, much of what she describes is also about the importance of relationships and role modelling.  This comes through in her blog and infectious enthusiasm.  I hope you will find her insights, as I do, to also be of wider relevance to therapeutic work with children as well as other spheres of ‘people work’.   

Patrick Tomlinson

The last time I wrote a blog for this site I had been running Stable Relationships for about 6 months. We are now a year and half into our journey and, to date, it has been an amazing and challenging experience. In this blog I would like to share some of the challenges we have faced, and lessons we have learnt. I would also like to thank Patrick for his encouragement and helpful support.

As I type, I am sat in our cabin. It is a beautiful log cabin with wooden floors and still a hint of the wood smell that was so prominent when it was first built. As I look out of the quaint paned glass windows I can see dew soaked, tufty grass fields, filled with majestic horses, grazing peacefully. It is a windy but sunny day and the shadows dance on the ground as they are cast and commanded by the leaves of the old oak tree overlooking the cabin. It is, by far, the most beautiful place I have ever worked; and as the leaves turn yellow, then orange, then red, making the trees into longer lasting mini balls of rainbow, all around me; I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to be a part of Stable Relationships.

It is just a part though. It is my business but it feels like it runs through me, rather than is run by me. I am part of a team. A large team, with many horses, organisations, young people, and direct colleagues. Anyone who knows me well, will say that I like to be in charge….and really don’t like to be told what to do. I have a tendency to ask for advice but then act in accordance with whatever I had already decided to do, before I even asked. Being part of this team has changed that about me. A colleague described our immediate team of four, as lone wolves. I would say that was true when we started. All four of us probably preferred to just get on and do things our own way. It isn’t true anymore…we have had to learn to work together.

A horse herd has various roles within it. However, these roles are not set in stone and sometimes they swap. Each horse has a value to the herd and if they tried to survive alone, they wouldn’t last very long. Our team has developed in the same way, although horses know this and behave in this way naturally; for us, it has been a steeper learning curve! Creating programmes that are engaging, educational, and focused has been a mix of equine knowledge and pedagogy.

Individually, I know about children, young people, and teaching, and my colleagues know about everything to do with horses. When we started we were more rigid in the roles we had, but as we have developed we have all learnt about the other aspect. I have learnt that playing ‘, Duck, Duck, Goose (or ‘Horse, Horse, Pony’), the popular children’s game where one child chases another round the outside of a circle, is not the best game, when horses are part of the circle, even if they are really, super calm horses. However, my colleagues have learnt that there are many circle games that horses and children can play together…and we all now work together to think of new games that are equally fun for horses and children. Working creatively as part of a team has been one of the biggest and most unexpected pleasures to date. It is how horses work, effortlessly, but for us it is an ongoing learning process.

It has sometimes been challenging. At times it has been a clash of priorities, values, and worlds.  I really dislike conflict, as do most people! That may be where some of my lone wolf-ness comes from. I’d rather get on and do something myself than have a conflict with another person. I’d rather avoid a disagreement than work through something, because I’m never sure what the other side of a disagreement will look or feel like. However, this avoidance has also had to change. The horses leave no room for pretending things are fine if they are not; in the same way that a traumatised child or young person will know if you are having an ‘off’ day. It was clear to all of our team that we needed to be honest about our feelings in the same way that the horses are. If we wanted to teach ‘Emotional Intelligence’, we needed to be emotionally intelligent. Not just when we are with young people, but also at the core of our business, and the core of ourselves. Of course, that is an ongoing process, but our awareness of it, and commitment to it means that we have had to learn to deal with challenges head on. I have learnt what is on the other side of conflict, within this herd anyway.

The EPONA approach (Kohanov, 2001) teaches that a horse will experience an emotion honestly, work out the message behind the emotion, change or accept something, and then let it go…or go back to grazing. For example, in a situation where there may be a conflict, if one of our team hasn’t liked how another has acted or responded to something, it is often easy to let the feelings build in the hope of avoiding the conflict. However, the feelings stay as energy that can be picked up by horses, young people, and ourselves. They make us harder to read, less clear, and less effective in our work. When we are able to act as a horse would; address the issue, change or accept something and then let it go, we are once again clear to work effectively. I have learnt that through experience.

On some level I guess I thought that if there was conflict within our team, it might last forever and possibly be the end of our team. I have learnt that feelings really don’t last forever, if they are managed. Ignoring them seems a sure way to make them intensify though.  It has come as a bit of a revelation that dealing with uncomfortable feelings like those felt in a situation of potential conflict, when they are still quite small, means that they pass much quicker. Happily, to date, our team is getting much better at this and we have all experienced that on the other side of conflict, we are all still here.

There was a situation a while ago that made me feel pretty angry. I don’t often feel strong emotions relating to the way that young people are managed when they are not with me and so I was surprised by how strongly I felt. The feelings led to a lot of reflection though, so I’m sure they were useful! A young person had to leave his session early but had not been told previously. This meant he spent the whole morning looking forward to his horse time, to be told at the point of riding, that he had to leave. The reason he had to leave was that one of his relatives had died a few months earlier and that day was the day his social worker had decided to tell him. Understandably he became very distressed when he was told he had to leave. I’m sure he would have become even more distressed when he was told the news about his relative.

It made me question why the situation had been handled as it had. Could he not have stayed an extra hour to have his horse time? Why had he not been told about leaving early previously? I wondered if it was maybe because no one felt able to help him manage his emotions. Maybe they wanted his understandably, heightened levels of frustration, confusion, sadness, and anger to be kept at bay until the very last minute, so as to keep things calm for as long as possible? As adults working with traumatised children and young people, we do try to keep things calm. ‘Calm is where we can learn and make friends’, I tell the young people I work with. However, through the conflicts I have had to face head on, I have discovered that calm is on the other side of managing emotions…not avoiding them.

If something scares a horse everyone around that horse will know about it. They make a fuss…they run fast or they fight. It isn’t hidden. They also get over it pretty quickly once they realise it is safe or something has changed. Watching that boy have to leave his horse session just made me question whether it was him who couldn’t manage his emotions very well, or whether it was others around him, who found it too painful to have a brave conversation. A conversation that would maybe have contributed to a big emotional response, but also might have been short lived, teaching that feelings don’t last forever. A conversation that was full of potential to see that calm can be on the other side of emotional chaos, and that maybe people are capable of going back to grazing just like horses.

Our journey has been one of challenging priorities. I believe we are all changed, and are all a little more understanding of each other’s worlds. Often this learning has been comical (to the other people anyway)! I have found it funny that on entering a barn filled with horses and people a colleague said ‘that must be your work experience person over there - the one with the green hair’. It was actually a member of care staff and my work experience young person was the one dressed very smartly in horse clothes with her hair tied back neatly. Perceptions of a troubled teenager! They have found it equally comical when I turn up to work wearing fashion cowboy boots in the middle of winter…’How is it even possible to work in this cold?’ or when I complain about my hat not fitting over my hair, and end up getting sunstroke instead of wearing it. Apparently, these are things you just know if you work with horses?! On one occasion, a colleague asked if an entire car park of teachers could stop teaching and move their cars so that our horse lorry could get into the playground. He was as surprised as I was about the sunstroke, that teachers can’t just stop teaching to move their cars.

As I said, we have all had some steep learning curves. In the same way that horses do though, we have learnt to accept the strange goings on of each other’s worlds. Occasionally now, I look like I know what I’m doing when I lead a horse or tie up a hay net. My colleagues definitely look like they know what they are doing as they sit in a classroom, on little people’s chairs, and act out a puppet show about the fight/flight/freeze response to a group of children.

We have been teaching emotional intelligence. We have been teaching how to work well in a team, how to develop good social skills, how to manage feelings, how to trust and be trusted, what happens in our brains when we have big feelings, and how to feel calm. As I reflect on the last year and a half, I am aware that the horses have always had these skills and have been leading us every step of the way. We are following them as they create their magic and continually show us how to be better people, a better team, and only then, better teachers who can hopefully help to make a better difference through our work.

Debbie Woolfe


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

Van der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Viking: New York

* (See, e.g., B.M. Levinson, “Human/Companion Animal Therapy,” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 14, no. 2 (1984): 131-44; D.A. Willis, “Animal Therapy,” Rehabilitation Nursing 22, no.2 (1997): and A.H. Fine, ed., Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice (Academic Press, 2010).

Further Reading

Horsing around in Childhood Really can Change your Life - First Evidence-Based Study to Measure Positive Levels of Stress Hormones in Children in Touch With Horses

Stable Relationships Media Links  Link to BBC Radio Shropshire Interview, Oct 2015 – Debbie and children talking about feelings, flight/fight/freeze and calming  Link to Channel 5 News Report, June 2015 - some great comments by Debbie and children on horses on the subjects of relationships, feelings and being calm  Link to The Times Article, May 2015) – Stable Relationships - Our First Year! A picture Video 

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