Earlier this year, I received a gelding named Flash. His owner could not give him the time he needed for training, and she wanted him to go to a good home. When I first met Flash, he was in a round pen because he had recently injured his pastern (he caught his leg in a fence) and wasn't letting anyone near him. He stood in stillness; only someone who has been terrified understands. I stood on the other side of the fence, Looking into his deep, dark eyes. He was entirely still, and so was I. We quietly assessed each other. I could feel that he had been through a lot. As I stood there, his present owner told me how his previous owner had beaten him. Her words hit my ears, and my heart ached for this beautiful animal. I knew what it was like to be abused. I intimately knew the gripping fear abuse causes.
"I will take him," I said. I knew it would not be an easy road with him, but I had the patience to give him the life he deserved, one built around safety.
Flash has since been moved to his new home, and he and my mare Queenie have become herd mates. My husband and I have been working slowly and patiently with Flash. We understand that horses are prey animals. Their "go-to" is to flee places of danger. With that in mind, we must be gentle with Flash so that he does not hurt himself or us in this process. We started by standing in his pen, Taking one step towards him, and then stopping. This usually resulted in him turning away, which told us he wasn't interested in having contact, but we were diligent and slowly took one more step forward. These tiny steps ahead gradually increased his willingness to interact with us. After an hour and a half of this slow movement, with some mild explosions (running away) from Flash, my husband got a halter on Flash. We have taken this same slow approach with Flash in everything we do: washing his wound, taking him into the barn, or walking with him in the arena. Currently, he looks through the lens of fear rather than curiosity for each new task we ask of him. We understand that, for now, fear is his default. We believe in time, he will shift to curiosity.
Flash's responses and brain functions are very similar to those of trauma survivors and, therefore, need similar treatment. The human brain comprises three layers: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. The reptilian brain is responsible for autonomic functions like hormones, body temperature, and hunger. The limbic system handles emotions like fear, anger, joy, and gratitude. The cerebral cortex is responsible for higher-level thinking, such as language, decision-making, and problem-solving. When a person feels threatened, their limbic system takes over. Within milliseconds of sensing a threat, the amygdala (the emotional control center) sends messages to the rest of the brain and body. Your heart starts pumping extra blood to your extremities so you can fight or flee your threat . Adrenalin also pumps through your body, preparing you to fight or flee. Your digestive system shuts down because your body does not need energy being focused on digestion when danger is present. It requires all energy to go to your limbs for survival. Like Flash, you are now ready to face your threat.
Horses often live in their limbic system. As I previously stated, horses are prey animals, which makes them constantly aware of danger. This heightened awareness, and Flash's past trauma is why we have had to move so slowly with him. We have had to increase his tolerance and acceptance of our presence gently. His nervous system is learning that we are not a threat.
When I work with a trauma survivor as a therapist, I have to take the same slow approach my husband and I are taking with Flash. Knowing that my client can be stuck in fight or flight due to their trauma, I slowly teach my client's nervous system that our work is not a threat. The first step we take is to determine what needs to be investigated and what is their trigger. This could be an event, a pattern of behaviour they do, or something else they choose. Once we have our focus decided upon, we create a resource. This is a safe place they can go to in their mind, either real or imagined. Once the resource is created, we invite the trigger in. This is done gently, like the patient steps forward we took with Flash. We discern which emotion is coming up and where they feel it in their body. We then want to find the origin of the emotion. I ask them questions like;
-When was the first time you felt this emotion?
- If it had a voice, what would it say?
- How old does this sensation feel?
Once those questions are answered, we move to a processing technique. We can use one of five processing techniques where we slowly introduce this sensation and gently increase the capacity of the nervous system to hold this emotion. We accept this emotion. We welcome it in slowly and gently. Healing happens once your nervous system understands that the feeling cannot hurt you. Once the processing technique is completed, I return my client to their resource and invite integration of all we have explored. We thank the body for showing us what it did, notice the stillness around us, and return to the room.
This form of therapy is called Embodied Processing. If it speaks to you and you would like to receive a session, please book a Free Discovery Call on my website at rhodestowellness.com. In this free call, we can get to know each other, and I can learn more about what you need support with.
I look forward to connecting with you.
Janet Rhodes BA, NLPP, CTP, RC.t, ECW