"COMBINING THERAPY FOR TROUBLED ADOLESCENTS WITH EDUCATING AND DEVELOPING PARTNERSHIPS WITH HORSES"

THE BELIEFS, ATTITUDES AND MANY OF THE BASE SKILLS REQUIRED FOR  EFFECTIVELY WORKING WITH PROBLEM DOMINATED ADOLESCENTS (USING NARRATIVE THERAPY METHODS) ARE THE SAME AS THOSE NEEDED FOR EFFECTIVE HORSE EDUCATION AND TRAINING USING THE MONTY ROBERTS METHODS.

By Colin Emonson, Founder of Horses For Hope 2005

This document is probably a bit self serving. In it I have attempted to write some of my thoughts and share some of my learning about this process of combining therapy with troubled adolescents and horse education and training. This is a journey of discovery for me and the writing process is about assisting me to work through thoughts, to sift and shape ideas and to try and share these ideas to enable feedback and input from others.

In the past couple of years I have worked with a small number of high risk young people, who have been considered difficult to engage in therapeutic processes. Each had an interest in horses, but none had any significant experience with horses. As part of this program they have worked with me as I began the education process of young horses, ranging in age from three to seven months. These young people have all been aware that we would be having discussions about life management issues while working with the horses. On each occasion the process has been very positive, with these very difficult to engage young people regularly participating in conversations about problem management, while reflecting on the experience of the horse.

My most recent experience of this has been in working with a very damaged and problem dominated 12 year old boy. He and l have been providing a foal with it‘s first lessons. As we worked through the process of the foal overcoming his inherent fears and beginning to trust and to learn, it has been possible to reflect, in a therapeutic way, on the boy's own difficult experiences and problems with life management.

Recently a senior High Risk Adolescent Therapist colleague, used the word “rich”, to describe the opportunities that this process seems to have provided for therapeutic reflection with this boy. That is, a rich source of opportunities for conversations about issues in the boy’s life, by reflecting on the young horse’s experience and actions.

The starting point of a horse’s relationship with a human is to inherently treat the human as a predator, and therefore not trust the human. I consider that most of our troubled young people have experiences of adults which lead them to believe, with good reason, that adults are not to be trusted and are best treated as predators. I believe that there are enormous therapeutic opportunities in troubled young people participating in and reflecting on, the very powerful experience of an inherently fearful horse beginning to trust a human. The Monty Roberts methods of horse education and training, provides a very clear process for developing trust, respect and partnership between horse and human. Inexperienced young people can participate in and learn this process, provided due care is taken regarding safety.

My personal journey has also included trying to understand more about the attitudes and skills required to be able to utilize the knowledge provided by Monty Roberts through his books, videos and demonstrations. I recently had the opportunity to attend a 2 day training event with Monty. This reinforced greatly my belief in his work, expanded my knowledge of the belief systems that underpin his work and generally increased my knowledge of his methods. In particular it increased my knowledge of the language and the subtleties of skills and movements required to communicate with a horse. I believe that this increased knowledge has improved my capacity with horses significantly.

These recent experiences have prompted lots of thinking about why combining working with horses and therapy for troubled young people works and how I could improve the process. The more I learn, the more I realise that the basic attitudes and skills required for effectively working with young people (particularly using a Narrative framework), are exactly the same as those required for working effectively with horses.

It stands to reason therefore that it ought to be possible to combine the two in a manner that is helpful to both horses and troubled young people. Of course in order to work in this way it is essential to have skills in working with adolescents, provision of therapy and working with horses.

THE INFLUENCE OF MONTY ROBERTS

For those who may not have knowledge of working with horses, the following is my attempt to describe in very basic terms, the work and influence of Monty Roberts. 

Historically, and certainly the way that I leamed to educate horses many years ago - was to dominate them with force until they learnt to treat the trainer as the boss. They learned to respond to the trainer’s demands using such methods. Different trainers had different means of doing this, some with more force than others. However in general, dominance required fairly high levels of force and often spilled over into forms of violent control. With dominance and force being the main tools, relationships between horse and human become based on control through fear rather than any form of true partnership.

This is not unlike some means of control used by people toward others, particularly toward young people. For example “doing as you are told or else”. In the right hands this can work to a degree, in that horses and young people can learn to do as told. But there has been a lot of very brutal trainers and tormented, broken down horses, both mentally and physically. There also are a lot of very troubled and damaged people in the world, resulting from domineering, violent and abusive relationships.

Monty Roberts found these harsh methods distasteful and believed there should be a better way. Basically it did not fit with his beliefs and attitudes about life and the treatment of any other living thing human or animal. Quite by accident, as a teenager while observing wild horses in America, he discovered what he thought was a language whereby horses communicated with each other. He also observed how adult horses would educate young horses to behave and treat each other in a community It is a body language using eye contact, body position, presentation of attitude and imposition of consequences, to communicate certain messages fiom one horse to another. He took these observations and translated the communication methods into human actions that a horse can understand. And it worked.

Monty has been developing and refining this language for 50 years and it is transferable. It can be learned. I can do it. It has changed my methods of educating horses dramatically, made me an infinitely better trainer and hopefully a better person.

In this language there is no place for violence. It does however require an understanding of this special language and how a relationship between horse and human can develop. It requires; calmness, intelligence, ability to communicate with the animal and read its needs and fears. It requires strength of knowledge, the will to be able to impose appropriate positive and negative consequences, and to demonstrate a love for the animal. In response we can expect trust and a willing partnership that I previously would never have dreamed possible.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING HONEST WITH YOURSELF, BEING TRUE TO YOUR BELIEFS AND DEVELOPING SKILLS TO MATCH

Horses and people will know if you are not, and will respond accordingly.

One of the most important events in my professional career in helping young people and their families, was when a young person who had experienced residential care, said to me that they (meaning all young people in care) could tell instantly if a staff member was “talented” or a “try hard". This young person was trying to say that they could pick instantly if a worker was genuine in how he or she presents to the young person. could pick if what was being said about caring and helping, matched what the person was actually thinking and feeling about the young person, or the circumstances presenting in general.

Abused children develop a highly attuned perceptiveness and ability to read people. They do this as a survival mechanism, Their instincts about how to respond may often be out of whack, because of their overactive survival responses, but their ability to perceive people accurately is generally fairly spot on.

Attitudes are directed by belief. In this work we will be placed under great personal pressure by the actions and the problems presented by the young people. When this happens, in the heat of the moment, emotions will be difficult to control and the core of who we are will be much more obvious. In fact we are likely to respond from our emotions, which will be driven by who we are and what we believe, rather than responding how we might be expected to professionally. So regardless of the ability of young people to read us accurately, if who we are, if our beliefs and attitudes do not match those of our professional expectations, eventually under pressure the difference will come out. If we are not being honest to ourselves we will be found out as fakes and treated as such by those that we are supposed to be helping. Rightly so.

In selecting, training and supporting people for care and support roles, I have always tried to focus on understanding who they are in terms of their core beliefs and attitudes. I believe the skills can be taught, the beliefs and attitudes are set very early in life and do not change without a great deal of conscious effort. With the right beliefs and attitudes, the right skills can be learned.

I have always had trouble describing the actual beliefs and attitudes, but have used terms like; genuine hope, belief in the inherent goodness of the human being, belief that all people want to improve their life regardless of how it may seem, being unreserved and resilient in caring and showing love.

From combining these beliefs and attitudes with formal learning and experience, it is possible to develop an effective kit bag of personal and professional skills for working with people. The formal learning needs to take into account; understanding human development, the effects of trauma and of problematic relationships. Experience is then necessary to develop the professional skills to be effective and the personal management skills to cope.

I believe that the beliefs and attitudes necessary for working with people are exactly the same as for working with horses using the techniques developed by Monty Roberts.

I believe also that exactly the same principles apply with the horsemanship skills. Providing there is sufficient basic knowledge about horses, the language and skills can be learned. However if these techniques are not underpinned by matching beliefs and attitudes, the horse will know and respond accordingly.

BEING AT PEACE, REMAINING CALM AND HAVING CONFIDENCE IN SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE

I believe that if I am not feeling at peace, Iam not as effective in the horse yard. Therefore if I am feeling a bit out of sorts, I need to make conscious efforts to alter my state of mind before entering the communication process with the horse. However I have experienced times when I am in the wrong state of mind, and have effectively worked on this whilst in the horse yard. In fact] have often felt better, more relaxed and more at peace when I finish the session with the horse than when I started.

I think that this should sound very familiar to the therapist or helping professional. I know that I am at my best in the therapeutic environment when my mind is most at peace and relaxed, and I am able to focus with good balance on process and content. I believe that the state of mind that] project to a troubled young person is very important in determining how they can respond during our communication. I think that we must be aiming to provide a space of some peace and serenity, in what is often a very confused, tumultuous and troubled world.

Monty Roberts talks a lot about controlling emotions, heart rate and adrenaline. It is very hard to do this if you are not at peace with yourself and what you are doing with a horse. By being at peace with yourself you are able to project calmness to the animal. The more I work with horses the more I see the absolute critical importance of this. And so it is with people, children and adolescents in particular.

Monty Roberts encourages us to maintain a smile when working with a horse, because it is hard to feel other emotions when smiling. For me, I find that singing is a good way to keep it all calm, when it is proving a bit difficult for a horse and it is becoming nervous and tense. No matter what happens, keep singing The horse thinks, oh he isn’t getting excited, it must be OK, I can be calm to. I also find it helpful to have music playing that I find relaxing, when I am working in the horse yard. However context is everything and it is not quite so appropriate to be singing during difficult moments while working with people. This little trick has to remain in the horse yard.

I know that I am at my best therapeutically, when I am feeling comfortable and at peace with what I am doing and confident with my skills. I need to be able to trust that my skills and knowledge will click in and take the conversation in a helpful direction at the right time. This leaves me free enough to give away myself and my views to the point of being able to immerse myself totally in, read and reflect accurately, the other person’s view of themselves and the problems they are confronting. They are the experts of their world, not me, I can never presume to know them as well as they know themselves.

So it is with horses, to be effective the trainer must be able to attune effectively to; the horse’s experience and view of what is happening to it, to the level of fear or trust that exists in the relationship and to the level of knowledge the horse has about what is being asked of it. Ie the level of education achieved to that point. The trainer must be comfortable with what they are doing and confident enough in their skills and knowledge, to not have to think too much about what should be happening next. Instead they need to be able to immerse themselves in the experience of the horse and allow that to determine the next steps in the partnership.

The establishment of a willing partnership is critical to enabling a horse to be free to learn. I am constantly amazed at their ability when the right environment and relationship is created; Monty Roberts uses the term “Adrenaline Up, Learning Down. Adrenaline Down, Learning Up” to describe the importance of non-violence in training and the importance of a willing partnership.

The learning process for a horse is no different to that of a child, or adult for that matter‘ It is a building process. A child can not learn to read without learning the alphabet, can not go effectively from grade one to grade three, because of the bits missed in grade two. Neither can a horse, so we need to understand what the steps of learning are for any particular horse, at any particular stage of learning.

A child will not learn in an environment of fear, because their attention is distracted by the feelings of fear, by thoughts of protecting themselves by taking control of the situation. A child will learn well when a safe, controlled and stimulating environment is created for them. So it is for a horse, and their ability to learn and retain information is incredible.

I think that the skills that I have picked up through my training and experience working with people, now helps me in understanding the practice of creating partnerships with and training of horses. 

And vice versa, I think that my understanding of horses is now helping in understanding and working with young people and their families.

I think putting the two together can be a very natural fit and it can be a very effective way of working with troubled young people. It can be used to create powerful experiences of trust and respect development and a rich environment of opportunities for therapeutic reflection.

MAINTAINING THE BELIEFS, PRESENTING THE CORRECT ATTITUDES AND APPLYING THE SKILLS

In a book “Building the Bonds of Attachment, Awakening Love in Troubled Children”, the Author Daniel A Hughes, describes a “Therapeutic Attitude”, that he says must be continuously and permanently displayed by people working with children with attachment disorders. These include; carers, social workers, therapists, school teachers etc. Daniel says that this therapeutic attitude is made up of; accepting, empathic, loving, curious, and playful attitudes and these must be constantly on display and driving all interactions with the child. Daniel also describes very clearly the strategies to be used along with the “therapeutic attitude”, to form an effective way of helping these children and young people.

I think that Daniel is right about this “therapeutic attitude” and it does not only apply to working with children with attachment disorders. It applies to all forms of working with troubled children and young people and it is just as important in working with horses.

Maintaining a helpful attitude is a very difficult thing to do in the face of major behavioural problems continuously presented by a child or young person. Because of the way that emotions come into play when placed under great pressure, it is impossible to do, if the Therapeutic Attitude does not fit comfortably with your beliefs and attitudes and who you are as a human being.

If who you are does not fit the mould, it will usually lead to personal stress and a sense of failure.

Many years ago a family therapist mentor of mine, Gerrard Menses, taught me an important foundation reference to use in providing therapy, “focus on Process not Content”.

This about trying to ensure that the therapist does not become too consumed by the story being told. If this happens the therapist can loose sight of the process that needs to followed= to facilitate a helpful process. It is the therapist’s professional responsibility to keep in sight, the directions that the process needs to go and to apply all their skill to that process. The same principle applies for the horse trainer.

This may seem to be counter to the ideas I expressed earlier in these notes, about the therapist or trainer immersing themselves in the experience of the person or the horse. It is not. It simply means that the skills of the therapist or trainer needs to be strong enough and engrained enough, to allow the immersion in the other's world, while maintaining the process on a directed path.

We must be driven by our professional knowledge and skills and not by our emotions. However showing emotion in a helpfiil way, must be part of our skill base. Responding only from an emotional perspective will not be helpful. Mind you, if the fit between our attitudes, beliefs and professional expectations is comfortable, then the emotion is likely to be helpful rather than unhelpful.

So it is again in working with horses. The ability to feel genuine connection and emotion toward the horse is critical. It is of equal importance to be clear about the direction that the relationship must take and have the knowledge and skills to take it there and remain focused.

When working with high risk young people we can be sorely tested when having to cope with things like abuse and physical threats, even when we know it is happening because they are hurting very badly inside. In these circumstances it is very difficult to maintain the strength to keep at bay our own strong emotions and feelings of anger, hurt, disappointment etc. But we must do this and maintain the strength and balance of unreserved care, therapeutic attitude and consequence. This can really take some doing. Yet it is critical in working with damaged children and young people. It is exactly the same with horses. It is impossible to do it effectively with horse or human, if your beliefs about mankind, about how people should treat any other living thing and about how to effect change, do not match what you are being expected to do.

I have had situations in my career when it has been necessary for our team or myself individually, to physically restrain a young person. We know that in doing this we must, remain very calm and not engage with any of the anger or frustration that is being exhibited by the young person at the time. In this situation you must present the therapeutic attitude, the sense of unreserved care, there can not be a sense of control due to anger or retaliation. It is not an exercise in application of consequences, it is an exercise in providing safety for the young person or others around. It is also an exercise of learning about care and support.

Horses with behavioural problems, often have very powerful fears and or, strongly developed attitudes about being in charge. To be successful we need to replace fear with trust and their need to be in charge with respect, connection and partnership. We must be strong but caring, totally without anger or violence. Every moment in the relationship is critical because the horse is observing and learning from every action and every interaction. So every moment must be managed deliberately and in the same carefiil, planned and intrinsically honest way, as we do in working with people. The same attitudes, the same beliefs, just a different language and skills in communicating the language.

MY EXPERIENCE OF THIS PROCESS

I actually find the process of working with both young people and horses, quite draining, However I also find it stimulating because I feel that it is working well, I am achieving something and I am learning. On reflection I think it is draining because of the mental and emotional effort it requires, to be able to attune too and immerse myself in, the moment by moment experiences that are taking place for both young person and horse. I must provide a safe environment and at the same time create situations that will facilitate learning and the development of the partnership between young person and horse. Plus I also need to make sure my skills are switched on for identifying and taking advantage of the therapeutic opportunities that present for the young person. I find it takes a lot of mental effort to do this.

Issues of safety are of course paramount. Most of the young people have little experience of horses, so as a first step I provide some education in; safety in horse handling, techniques of basic horse handling and identification and use of equipment etc. They must know the basic do’s and don’ts, before they enter the horse yard.

Because these young people have little experience with horses, they are usually nervous and can be quite fearful. A horse will feel this and respond accordingly. This is the exact opposite to the environment we are trying to create for both young person and horse. So I talk with the young person about learning how to manage these emotions. We need to work with the young person to help them develop strategies to achieve this. This includes them advising me as to how I can be helpful to them in the process. If I get this wrong, it will not work for them or the horse, because we will have an environment of nervousness at best and potentially, very real fear.

This stage of the process often provides the first opportunities for therapeutic reflection, development of new self awareness and new problem solving skills. Most of these young people do not have good skills in managing strong emotions in a helpful or acceptable way. For most of them this issue provides fairly major problems in their lives. So this is a good opportunity for reflection on this issue and for developing transferable skills while working in the horse yard. Skills that can be transferred to other parts of their lives.

Two adolescent boys who have participated in the program separately and who do not know each other, both wanted to teach the foal they were working with to trust enough to be able to accept a hug. For both, this was a strong and consistent goal throughout their participation in the program. Tough, macho young guys, who seemed to have a strong need to hug and be hugged and maybe this was as good as they could get at that time. Animals are very accepting and unconditional, particularly if they feel they can trust and especially if they experience a sense of partnership with a human being. I hope these boys have been able to benefit from this experience with the young horses they worked with. I was very pleased that they felt safe enough to express this desire to hug the young horse.

It is extremely important that there is sufficient flexibility in the program to allow us to follow where the young person’s interest and capacity may take us. As it turned out, one of these boys loved doing the chores of caring for the horse, cleaning the stalls, mixing feed etc. The other loved to spend time around the farm, feeding out hay etc. His concentration span was very limited, so we would take breaks from working with the horses to do these other things.

A 15 year old girl had trouble with managing nervousness around the inexperienced horses, but loved grooming. She found pleasure, and peace in the process of grooming .At the time I was preparing young horses for shows, so we ended up spending most of our time together grooming. It took me a while to attune properly to her experience and to work out that the grooming task was the most effective way of providing a heipful experience for her. Her experience taught me a lot about the critical need for accurate attunement to the young person’s experience and adjustment of the program to match.

The program for each young person will be different and guided by their desires and experiences around the horses. Success must be judged differently for each young person. For some, the program may be successful if it provides nothing more than an experience from which they feel a sense of success. Typically these high risk young people do not have many experiences where they see themselves as being successful and we need to fan any little flame of success that we notice or can create for them The program may be successful for some, if it simply provides a place of some pleasure and peace in their life, when there is usually little of this. For others it may be able to provide a significant, intensive therapeutic experience.

So these are some of my thoughts. There is so much more that probably needs explaining. I have not mentioned any actual techniques, I have not mentioned critical issues such as consistency of message, or how we need to be so mindful of use and effect of power in our relationships with young people and horses. However I hope there is sufficient here to provide the reader with an idea as to why Ithink these two processes can be brought together, in a way that is helpful in creating therapeutic opportunities for healing and change, for troubled young people.

I believe the process of sharing the experience of a horse overcoming it’s inherent fears, developing trust, becoming a willing partner and ieaming, can be powerful for any person willing to open their heart to the process. For a person who experiences problems with trust, belonging and managing feelings and emotions, this experience can be even more powerful and can be given great meaning and relevance in their own search for solutions and peace.

So I am giving it a go.

Colin Emonson, Founder of Horses For Hope 2005