Leave it in the Dirt – the Wisdom of Horses and Gestalt Equine Therapy
by Ryan Hook | June 18, 2020
Everyone's probably familiar with therapy dogs, but have you heard about therapy horses? Chantel White is an Equine Gestalt Therapist based in Alberta. Her approach combines her lifetime passion for horses with Gestalt Therapy––a client-centred approach to psychotherapy developed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The combination of the two therapies creates a dyad of expression and exercise.
Chantel White says Gestalt Therapy is “[...] working through what you’re feeling in the present moment.” Other examples of Gestalt therapy are the Empty Chair Technique––a technique where the client talks to an empty chair imagining either themselves or someone else sitting there––or the Exaggeration Technique, where the client acts how they feel with exaggerated movements of frowning, anger or other emotions.
So How Does it Work with Horses?
White says horses “resonate with energy and meet us on a heart level.” When we meet these horses in the present moment, White says, “They [horses] give feedback and are intentional with feedback. Horses backstep to our B.S. a lot quicker.” To White and her clients, “Horses are like reiki masters.”
Transcending the stereotypical horse girl cliche, White marries trauma based and physical therapy work by focussing on catharsis and a purging of self. She says “Trauma is stored in the body and when you work it out, you step out of that reaction mode into a healing one.”
When White says “trauma is stored in the body,” she’s talking about tissue memory. Tissue memory is the way your body stores emotions within your fascia or muscles. Trauma is stored in the body which can lead to pain. Our bodies can only handle a finite amount of stress and trauma, which is why pain is the result of an experience that exceeds our ability to physically cope with stress. Exercising this issue and the stressed tissue is key in healing and learning.
Exercise is not exclusively about doing crunches, or running on the treadmill––exercising is a way to express and invoke catharsis. In Ancient Greece, catharsis was a way for the public to release strong emotions of shame or anger. They’d express catharsis through plays and shows––it was a way to express individual and collective emotions. Aristotle believed catharsis was a corrective healing process, and Hippocrates believed catharsis was a “healing agent” that helped with disease. In the 60’s catharsis treatment was used for psychotherapy. Whether it was screaming, crying or acting out dreams and fantasies, catharsis has long been used as a treatment for trauma.
Perhaps our society is going through another stoic phase, but I see our hearts looking for the opportunity to purge, be it through art, therapy, or theatre––alternative therapies offer safe spaces to do this.
White says, “I see a lot of people with childhood trauma––emotional or physical––and I usually see them at their wit’s end. They’ve tried lots of different therapies before me, and they just say, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this pain anymore.’” White says she’s seen a lot of service workers like nurses or teachers, but also other therapists who need to unload and exercise. She and the horses are there to help.
After we had talked for a bit, I had to ask a burning question, “Do you and the client ride the horses?”
White says, “I don’t do that!”
White’s process goes differently than I expected. She says, “The horses are free and interacting with you.” The sessions begin by exploring family history and engaging in talk therapy, White says “[...] when we get to that sweet point where they [the client] feels they’ve expressed themselves we move on to the horses.”
But how do the horses play a part in therapy? White says, “The horse interacts with the client. I’ve had horses sit in front of them [the patient], not letting them walk. I’ve had them interact with my patient by nuzzling them. The horse will often act out what the patient is going through.”
With one patient White says, “The horse was nudging her back, so I asked ‘Well, what’s that all about––why is the horse doing that?’ She [the patient] explained to me how she had body image issues. White says the horses are intuitive enough to recognize what the patient is going through, and that is what allows the patient to feel comfortable enough to share openly.
The point for White is that clients are there to exercise their trauma and “complete the cycle.” The first few sessions are where most of the tough work happens, and White admits she finds that clients “retreat for a while.” She says they do often come back because the changes they end up feeling after their sessions are intense. Intense work creates intense changes.
About her therapy White says, “We explore things somatically and then we explore it with the horse.” This completes the cycle of trauma-based therapy. Our energy from that particular incident gets resolved in this cycle. It’s not that the past is gone, it just no longer controls us. Trauma-based therapy is good for anyone feeling like there is something unresolved within them, who have something bubbling just underneath the surface, or for people who feel stuck in shameful thought patterns.
Resolving the cycle is important for your mental health, and whether you’re doing it through writing, music, painting, yelling into your pillow or interacting with horses, the way you express your trauma is personal, which means that how trauma presents can be surprising. Equine Therapy, White says, is a way to express and resolve your trauma in a healthy manner.
Your mental wellbeing is as important as your physical wellbeing. White says, “When we leave things in us, it turns in and that creates shame. We don’t need that. We don’t have to accept it.”
White’s message is strong––we need love, acceptance and understanding from not only others, but from ourselves.
White left me with one final piece of advice, “We have the solution in us, but we just need someone or something to guide us through it,” and just when I thought there’d be no farm metaphors she says, “We just gotta leave some stuff in the dirt.”
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