The Affirmative Path – Part 1
I have been undergoing a sea change in my relationship to horses the last few months. In actuality it started long before that, but there was a defining moment in September last year when I had a consultation with trainer and author, Anna Blake, about Dream.
For those of you who have worked with me at home in the last 6 years, you know who I’m talking about. For those that don’t – here he is.
I could wheel out the long story about how he was really a rescue and all the physical trials and tribulations – his and mine – that have led to this place, but that is missing the point. For sure, it would pull on your heartstrings for compassion (definitely for him, not necessarily for me), but in this story I don’t get to be the heroine riding in on her white horse (or Xena on a palomino – but perhaps that’s another blog!). Dream does not get to play the victim, nor does he get to play the hero. He is Dream, a black Icelandic cross Cob, not a magical unicorn sent to heal me. I don’t know what his path is, other than it is his own, but I do believe there is a reason we are together. I am not going to tempt fate, or my ego, by pretending I know what it is. I’m still scraping the mud from my knees and out of my eyes from the last time I fell into that murky hole. Perhaps my depth perception is more equine than human when it comes to not realising how deep those holes are! And there I go again, trying to make a normal human frailty something different, something special – something equine even!
Why is it so hard to be compassionate with our humanness? I mean deeply, soulfully compassionate – not skating over the surface with pampering ‘self-care’ and positive affirmations, whilst secretly believing there is something in us that is so badly broken that no amount of therapy, equine or human, will ever fix . If we can’t be compassionate with and regulate our own nervous systems that often live in flight or fight due to trauma, (or just living in this crazy world), then how do we accept and find compassion for the nervous systems of our horses? How to we ‘get alongside’ and help regulate rather than judge, fight, give up, or wake at 5am for months with horse related anxiety (or is that just me?).
Before I go back to the consultation with Anna Blake, I have to talk about AEDP – Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. https://www.equinesoulconnection.com/aedp-therapy/. I was initially drawn to this therapy because it is experiential and somatic, like the horse work. It took a while (a few courses and lots of pounds later) to realise that one of the greatest gifts is the focus on transformance, what is right, what is healing oriented (or the smallest try in horse language) and how powerful and reparative it is for clients when we see it and affirm it. When I work with clients I try to be attuned to the smallest somatic change (like calming signals in horses), that indicates that something is happening with their nervous system and emotions. We don’t always know what, and luckily with humans, we have language to process our calming signals. We also need time, patience, breath regulation and affirmation. The word sometimes seems simple and lightweight for what that really means. For me, it means – I see you, I know you are doing your best, I know you want to feel better, and most importantly – I know that this is possible because it is Who You Are, even if life has taught you something different.
So, back to Anna Blake. I liked her blogs https://annablake.com/relaxed-forward-blog/. I thought I ‘got it’ and was on the same page. Then she spent an hour pulling the rug out from under my feet and gave me a totally different interpretation of Dream’s behaviour than any other trainer (and 6 years down line, I had gone through a few). Despite the fact that part of me had gone into free fall without a parachute, I didn’t feel shamed, which was a huge change from the last trainer I worked with. A big part of me (some might call it my ego) was convinced she’d got it totally wrong and didn’t understand me or him. If she was right, it meant that I had got it totally wrong and how could I hold my head up as an Equine Facilitated Therapist and Teacher?
There was so much said in that initial consultation that my brain probably didn’t absorb, however there were a few things that planted the seeds of ‘what if..’. The important ones that have stuck for me were:
- Are you sure your horse isn’t in chronic pain? I was absolutely sure she was wrong about this one, however I did get my vet to give him a thorough checking and it turns out he has hepatitis and may have had it for years, and the vet is still trying to find the best treatment.
- Don’t listen to me or any trainer – listen to your horse. I already had the calming signals book and had starting listening, but with a slight hand over ears ‘la la la’ approach, because surely my horses couldn’t be giving me that many calming signals? And what did it mean and what the fuck did I do about it? However, I was tired of giving my power away to different trainers and friends about Dream, and somehow hearing this message at this time, set something inside me free. Something a bit angry too that I had spent years shaming myself because I couldn’t make ‘the method’ work. The small voice that was deeply uncomfortable about escalating pressure as motivation started getting louder “ Please listen, please try, maybe I’m not wrong or weak”. After all, this escalating pressure didn’t seem to help me, in fact the constant internal pressure I have put on myself over the years has led to anxiety and depression.
- Anna suggested that Dream was trying too hard. Trying to gain affirmative attention. Trying to be a good boy. This broke my heart as I also recognised myself. I also was aware of the part of me that acted out in ‘fight’ behaviour, often quite quickly, if the person didn’t see that I was trying and I was good – if I was misunderstood. I know he’s not me, however it resonated.
- The bit that clinched it, was when I was explaining Dream’s escalation in to fight behaviour, Anna (still trying hard with this argumentative woman in total denial) did the best thing she could have done – she asked me how I would view the situation as a therapist and what I would do. The light bulb moment. Would I add pressure to a client who was out of her window of tolerance? Would I judge them and then be absent from the relationship because I was judging myself and also out of my window of tolerance? No, I’d stay present and do my best to help them regulate. I would know that this was the best they could do in the moment and some part of their nervous system was trying to keep them safe. This didn’t mean I could automatically translate that to Dream. My nervous system is quite dysregulated around him as I’ve been hurt, however I now had the opportunity for a completely different pathway. What if I put our regulation and safety first? What if I knew deep in my essence that he was a good boy – no labels, no ‘pathology’, just a horse with a nervous system trying to stay safe and feel better?
What if all of us are ‘good’ at the deepest (in our souls), trying to stay safe, striving for transformance? How would life be different, not just our horsemanship or therapy, but our internal and external relationships? For now, I’m learning, again, how to find the ‘good girl’ in me. To compassionately notice the part of me constantly waving the rope at my own arse and ask her if she’d like to join me on the affirmative path.