I am currently a senior at Otterbein University studying Sociology. I am also a US Navy Veteran who served nine months in Iraq. I suffer from complex post-traumatic stress from childhood trauma, military trauma while serving, and Borderline Personality Disorder.
On February 20, 2017, I was invited by PBJ Connections to experience what EAGALA model equine assisted psychotherapy is like and how working with horses can help someone, like myself, deal with strong emotions. The day I visited the farm in Pataskala it was warm and Holly Jedlicka, a licensed independent social worker, informed me that the session would be in the pasture outside. Holly was also accompanied by Erica Lewis, an equine specialist. The facilitators picked up a few tools such as bright colorful cones, a few pool noodles, and brushes for the horses. These were some of the items they had available for me to use in the session. We walked out to the pasture where three large male horses stood named September (tan), Sirius (black), and Rocky (white). Holly asked me to think of an issue that I have been struggling with and go spend time around the horses.
The issue I have been dealing with is setting healthy personal boundaries with my sister. I love my sister and how much she has done for me, especially when I moved back to Ohio after I was discharged from the Navy. However, I have never told her “no”, or that I am busy, or that I cannot help with her children. So, for the last five years, whenever she asks, I drive from my house to Starbucks, which is three miles away, and use my own money to buy her coffee for $5.75. Then I drive from Starbucks to her house, which is also three miles, before driving to Otterbein University for my classes, back tracking the same three miles to get to class. I do this everyday, sometimes twice in one day, and it costs me a minimum of $28.75 a week.
With this problem in mind I walked out in to the pasture and proceed to my first interaction with the horses.
I looked out at each horse to see what they were doing. September was standing, looking around, and eating hay. Sirius was also eating hay, but seemed busy with his food. Rocky was out in the middle of the pasture eating what looked to be dead grass. I felt sorry for him. I decided to approach September and started talking to him about how I felt. I told him it was unfair that I must drop everything I am doing to go help my sister with her children. I do love my nephew and niece but I need my own time also. September stopped eating and looked up at me. I held my hand out and he let me touch him. I felt he was telling me, “It is okay to have your own time”. September then went back to eating and started to walk away a little so I let him move. I went to say “Hi” to Sirius, but I felt that I was bothering him and that he did not want me around him. So I walked out further into the pasture to see Rocky. He was still eating the dead grass and I still felt sorry for him.
I felt that he should have the right to eat the hay with the other two horses and that eating dead grass could not be that exciting. I held out my hand to him and he sniffed my hand and nibbled on my t-shirt. I told him that I didn’t have any treats for him. At first I felt that he wanted nothing to do with me because I did not have anything to offer him. Just like when it is the end of the month and I only have $20.00 dollars left for the next two weeks. When I inform my sister, she does not contact me or complain about how she has no coffee for those two weeks. I will start to feel bad and go spend the last $20.00 on her. Then I end up skipping meals and eating less food.
However, when I told Rocky that I didn’t have any treats to give him, he nudged my hand and lowed his head so I could scratch his ears. For once someone was grateful that I was just there to scratch his ear. Even though I did not have anything for him, my presence was enough for him and he went back to eating what little grass was available. Just being there was enough for him. Then I could tell Rocky what I struggle with each day and what I have been working with my provider at the Chalmers P. Wylie Veterans Affairs (VA).
During my sessions at the VA I have learned about dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is a program that teaches individuals life skills of being in the moment, how to change and regulate emotions, how to work through difficult events, and interpersonal effectiveness. One of the course sections talks about how to set healthy boundaries and how to say “no” to someone. Knowing that it is perfectly fine to tell someone “no” and being able to do it are not always the same thing. I know that when I set a boundary that should be the end of the conversation, but I still struggle with it. After my session with Rocky and the other horses, I could see different ways that I might be able to say “no”. I was excited to go back to my provider at the VA and talk to her about what I discovered in the session.
I realized that could talk to my provider about how to approach someone who seems intimidating, and then go back to PBJ Connections and practice approaching Sirius with the skills I have learned. I know I can find a way to reinforce these skills through working with my provider and with the horses and eventually use these skills in life settings. I know that I have the power inside of me to do it.
After interacting with each of the horses I went back to Holly and talked to her about what I was feeling during the session.
I talked to her about how I felt sorry for Rocky; how it was hard for me to approach Sirius, and how September was a nice horse. As we were talking I looked over and September went from eating the hay to also eating the grass. That was when I realized that Rocky was not the only horse eating dead grass. That even his barn mate was happy eating the grass. At first, I did not think there was a good reason why the two horses were eating the grass, and it did not dawn on me to ask Holly. When it comes to asking questions, just like when it comes to saying “no”, I often struggle. I fear confrontation and I fear sounding dumb to other people. This fear of confrontation also was the main reason I did not ask Holly when or how to use the colorful cones or the other tools she had brought out for me. I went the whole session looking at the tools, but never picking one up. This in part was due to being in the military and being told if you do not know what it is or how to use it do not touch it. After talking to Holly for a bit, she asked me to once again go out and interact with the horses. This time I did not think about my sister and telling her ‘no’ or which horse to touch. This time I just went out and interacted with the horses.
I just wanted to be in the moment and take in the warm air and pet each horse. I focused on how each one allowed me to pet them and I even approached Sirius. He put his head down so I could pet him. With PBJ Connections being away from the city, it was peaceful and quiet. There were no car horns, no one yelling, no huge crowds to deal with and it was a very great experience for me. I can see how working with the therapist, staff, and the horses at PBJ Connections can help with learning new skills. I learned how to say “no”, how to ask the right questions, and how being away from the city and away from sitting in a room can help someone to learn to live with their mental health disorder.