Expanding the therapy hour

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Bucking a modern trend, equine facilitated psychotherapy sessions tend to be longer and to involve a variety of different activities when compared to traditional therapy.

In a recent edition of the New York Times, Richard Friedman writes about the shrinking therapy hour. "ONCE," he writes, "an hour with your therapist ran for about 60 minutes. But there’s been a steady time deflation: first there was the 50-minute hour and now we have 45-minute 'hours.'” Outside pressures may be forcing some to shorten the therapy hour, but my experience working with people and horses shows that there is something to be said for slowing down and expanding both the time and focus of therapeutic work.

In the NYT article mentioned above Friedman also recounts a story of one of Freud's clients who reported feeling relieved of depression and heartache after a four-hour "peripatetic" session during which he and Freud ambled along the canals and through the streets of the city talking as they went. While most of Freud's encounters with clients centered around his iconic couch, the psychoanalytic approach relied on granting clients time--often over many years--to ramble or freely associate through thoughts, dreams, and memories. Many of us today have neither the desire nor the luxury to have the kind of long-term relationship with a therapist that might allow us to wander through our minds until we stumble, as it were, onto the missing pieces of our wholeness. Few therapists have the courage to leave behind the confines of the office walls to take a walk with their clients.

Luckily, since Freud's time we have learned a lot about human development so that therapists today can more efficiently guide the healing process. Still, there is something to be said for the kind of curious self-exploration that Freud fostered. Equine-facilitated psychotherapy and other forms of experiential therapies offer clients an opportunity to explore their innermost workings in an environment that is dynamic and ready for experimentation. This balance of structure and freedom supports discovery, growth, and change.

Today research into neurobiology and study of how humans form relationships from the earliest times through adulthood actually help us to better know what kinds of exploration are likely to lend themselves to healing, so that we don't have to spend years rummaging through darkened memories. We now know that learning happens first and foremost on the unspoken body level. Experiences in the womb, through birth, and early childhood create expectations for how the world will receive us. We gather perceptions of ourselves and others through our felt-sense experiences and from this overlay the mental expectations for how things will be in the future.

This type of contextual learning is key to our survival and yet it makes it difficult for us to change how we see and respond to the world, even when we desire change. For instance, if you were a child that grew up in an abusive environment or a place that was somehow unwelcoming, your brain and body adapted to that environment. Later, as an adult, you may find that the adaptive strategies you implemented at an early, often pre-verbal stage aren't effective for you as you mature. It is possible to change those strategies, but it does take a special kind of awareness to bring light onto unspoken and often unconscious behaviors.

Sitting in an office, only part of this story comes forward. And in a shortened therapy hour, there might be a tendency to speed forward to what is considered to be the most important material. The relationship between the client and therapist can lack the richness of early attachment behaviors that include moving, touching, playing, and mirroring and responding to others in a spontaneous way. Horses, on the other hand, naturally invite clients to engage in this way, and a therapist working in this environment is privy to more of this important nonverbal information.

When people come to the ranch to do their therapeutic work, the process starts on the trip to the countryside. People set aside the time for a different kind of experience. And maybe it is because we are old-fashioned, but many therapists working with horses opt for longer--not shorter--hours. My sessions are 75-minutes, allowing time for clients to arrive and interact with this different environment. Then, with the help of the horses, the client is able to experience how he or she engages with the world, something that would generally take longer to emerge in the confines of the therapy office. Individuals are able to experience what kinds of expectations and projections they place on others by observing their responses to the horses. Horses, operating with the nonverbal information the client presents in the moment, are able to give a fresh interpretation of how the individual approaches or avoids relationship. At the same time, the steady presence and accepting nature of horses helps people build enough safety to stay present with themselves and the process as it unfolds.

Equine-facilitated therapy speeds up the healing process by helping the individual slow down and become more aware of the unspoken processes at work. Then there is an opportunity to experience things in a fresh, new way right in the here and now.

All that in a 75-minute hour.

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