Emily Van Strien, LADC, a counselor at Crossroads for Women, worked with clients at Riding to the Top Therapeutic Riding Center in a pilot project that combines substance abuse treatment and therapeutic horseback riding. The project was funded in large part by the PRBB Foundation, along with assistance from the Edward H. Daveis Benevolent Fund and additional underwriting from Riding to the Top to complete the project. Below are Emily’s reflections on the project.
When I was told last winter that I would be the counselor at Crossroads for Women Halfway House participating in a therapeutic horse riding grant that had been secured with Riding to the Top, I wasn’t initially 100% clear as to how the two modalities fit together. I was accustomed to group therapy conducted on couches with regulated climate and white boards. I knew next to nothing about what therapeutic horse riding entailed, its versatility and capacity to touch deep emotional places in people.
What stands out most for me when reflecting back over the eighteen sessions are the metaphors that arose spontaneously, thus evoking unexpected insights into so many areas of our clients’ lives. I remember one morning Duke being particularly nudgy, pushing his way into one woman’s space even after she held up her hands asking him to back off. We laughed, but then used it as a learning moment of what to do when receiving unexpected attention, perhaps at a meeting from a man who doesn’t seem to take a hint.
I remember one particular woman, convinced the horses didn’t like her, describe having a breakthrough of insight into the relationships in her life when she was asked to look at her interactions with the horses from a different angle. She was asked to consider that the horses simply received and reflected back, much like a mirror, that which she put out. She identified her lifelong struggle with low self-esteem and how she often projects her feelings of dislike for herself onto others.
Another time, we were observing one of the horses nosing around a pile of another horse’s manure. Out of nowhere, a client pointed to it and said, “That’s how I feel when I’m in the depths of my addictions. Like my face is in s—. That’s how low I stoop.”
During one of my favorite exercises, “Temptation Alley,” the women would struggle to guide the horse through a course laden with hay, grain, carrots and other horse delights. Time and again, each woman would experience the strength of the animal’s pull, very much like the power of her addiction, and experience in her body the necessity to receive help from her community in order to keep the horse on its path.
I loved seeing women overcoming their fears of the large animals and moving from a place of anxiety to comfort. One woman described experiencing the feeling of compassion when being in close physical contact to the horses; she shared how she’d never felt herself let down her guard when loving something before then.
Another powerful moment would come during the lesson about the acquired behavior of cribbing, a compulsive and destructive behavior the horses learn from one another for the purpose of releasing endorphins and easing stress. Michael and Kate, the Riding to the Top facilitators, would gently share their experience of rehabilitating traumatized horses who “have their buttons and ways of dealing” just like humans. Seeing themselves in the horses again, several clients eluded to feeling less judgmental for being an addicted and/or traumatized woman. During those moments in the arena, something eased up for a while.
When the experience at Riding to the Top came to a close, I was struck with how many opportunities I had as a facilitator to observe our clients’ leadership skills, her creativity, her ability to take direction, maintain boundaries, handle frustration without giving up, identify and then interrupt her self-defeating thinking and behavior, to trust her instincts and be present in the moment. Participating in the weekly sessions at Riding to the Top was more than just a chance for the clients and myself to get out of the house and off the couches. It was a fresh way into the heart. As a facilitator, I was left with the knowing that it doesn’t matter if it’s a group room or a horse arena, growth and healing can occur anywhere and anytime and it does.
~ Emily Van Strien, LADC