What does a session look like?
We get this question all the time. Then we give an example, try to explain the theory and often still see confusion on people’s faces. We believe this is partly due to the pre-conceived notion people have that if you are around a horse you ride it! I’m going to take you through the process here and see if it helps to clarify.
A parent hears about us through their child’s therapist (or teacher, or insurance provider) and gives us a call for more information. We have a phone conversation with them and then send them some paperwork. Once they get that paperwork back to us, we schedule an intake assessment. This is a sit down meeting with the PBJ Connections’ therapist so that we can gather a history, do a risk assessment, complete a diagnostic assessment, and determine if the child/family is a candidate for this model of therapy. If they are, the therapist then schedules an equine-assisted psychotherapy session with the child/family. This is where it gets more interesting.
About a week after the intake assessment, the child, let’s say a 12-year old girl, is brought by her parents to the barn. The family is given a tour of the facility, gets to meet the horses and learns where everything is. The therapist is already carefully listening for comments from the family about any of the horses. The girl, while looking at a big brown horse, says, “This one likes me.” The therapist notices this and says, “He likes you. Hmm. How can you tell?” The girl responds that she can tell because he has his head out and wants attention. The therapist already has the information that this child believes that the concept of “being liked” and the concept of “getting attention” are the same.
The girl then notices a horse standing at the back of a paddock, eating hay. She says that he does not like her because he didn’t come when she called out to him. She also notes that he is “distracted” by the food. The therapist now has information that the client feels that she is not liked when someone is distracted (such as a parent).
After the tour is complete, the therapist and the equine specialist consult and decide to take the horse that “liked” the client and the horse that “doesn’t like” the client and put them together in the pasture. The equine specialist takes care of this while the clinician does a little processing with the client and answers any questions the parents may have. When the horses are ready, the girl is invited out to the pasture and the parents are asked to wait in the car or the office. The girl enters the pasture along with the therapist and the equine specialist. The therapist asks her to spend a few minutes with the “one that likes you” and the “one that doesn’t like you”. The child wanders up to the horse that she said liked her and starts petting him. The horse lifts his head from the grass briefly, but then goes back to eating, allowing the girl to continue petting him. She does this for some time before looking over and walking up to the horse that she said did not like her. This horse also lifts his head, allows the child to touch him, then goes back to eating. But after a minute or two, the horse moves walks away to a different part of the pasture. The girl returns to the other horse, the one that likes her, and spends many more minutes just touching this horse and petting him. She is clearly enjoying the experience of being “liked” by this horse.
Before the session time is over, the therapist and equine specialist, who have been watching the entire interaction, walk up to the client and ask her about her experience. The girl says that she really likes this one, the one she is spending time with and petting. The therapist asks what she likes about him and the girl says that she likes him paying attention to her. The therapist notes out loud that this one does seem to be standing still near her, while the other one moved farther away. The child responds that the other one did seem friendly at first, but was more interested in the grass. The therapist asks, “What does that other one think about all this grass that he is so interested in?” The girl responds, “He really likes it. It is almost overwhelming to him because there is so much of it! I just can’t be as interesting as all this grass!”
The therapist now has confirmed that getting attention is very important to this girl and that there is some aspect of her life where she doesn’t feel as interesting as she should be. The therapist also has the information from the intake assessment, where she knows that the girl’s parents are divorced and that her mom is getting remarried. The therapist is tying all of this information together in her own thoughts and knows exactly where to go next.
“I wonder what it would take to be as interesting as all of this grass?” the therapist says to the girl. The girl responds that she doesn’t know, so the therapist invites her to try to be as interesting as the grass. The girl re-approaches both horses, the one that “liked” her first. Both of them lift their heads again. The girl says that when she approaches them they both are interested, just not for long. The therapist wonders out loud what it would take to keep their interest. She tries several things, including running, yelling, feeding them grass, and walking up to them with a brush. When she runs and yells, both horses trot away. The facilitators note out loud that both the one that “liked” her and the one that didn’t have both moved farther away. When she feeds them grass, both respond by taking it, but also continue eating grass off the ground. When she approaches them with a brush, they both stand still and allow her to brush them for several minutes. The client notices this and says they like to get attention, too. The therapist is then able to process about positive attention versus negative attention (like when they moved away because she was yelling). The therapist is pointedly working on the thinking error that if someone isn’t giving you attention that it is personal and they don’t like you, while also helping the client experience what positive attention looks like.
The session is out of time and the girl says goodbye to both horses. She tells her mom it was “cool” and says she can’t wait to see the horses again next week. The therapist and equine specialist talk briefly with other about working with those same two horses next week to continue developing the metaphor about being “liked” and “getting attention”.
And this is just the beginning.