Traveling back in time, I lived my teenage years in Germany during the late 1970s, experiencing European and especially German culture. Coming to the beginning of a professional carreer, I strongly felt drawn to the helping professions. It seemed I was especially drawn to the elderly population, therefore I chose to become a nurse and specialize in geriatric nursing. I remember one incident which almost let me pursue a different direction. It was a profound experience at a bus station. I offered my help to an elderly lady, who was trying to climb the steep stairs into the bus. Her response of harshly rejecting my offered help affected me in a way that I learned that elderly peoples’ most precious asset may not being helped, but to preserve independence. I started to study geriatric nursing with the goal of striving for the elderly’s population independence, staying as long as possible in their own homes and not having to move into nursing homes.
I also was always somehow involved with horses, visiting the local barns, taking riding lessons, and mucking stalls. I knew there was something therapeutic about horses, besides the athletic riding activities. That early horse contact started my pursuit into horse wisdom, in connection to a therapeutic approach.
I read all materials I found about horse therapies, but at this point, in the 1980s, the reading materials I found were mainly about the physical therapeutic aspects of horseback riding. It did not satisfy my pursuit into horse wisdom in connection with human therapeutic needs. I worked for a while in geriatric nursing, until life’s circumstances let me and my family immigrate to the United States, Colorado.
Exposure To Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy
Working as a geriatric nurse in Colorado did not fulfill my pursuit of dreams as a professional carrier, I felt there were some missing links to the pursuit of competency in the healing profession. I was introduced to the therapy field working in a nursing home and switched carriers.
Starting my journey as a biodynamic craniosacral therapist felt right at that point. By learning to palpate the cerebrospinal fluid in the body, finding restrictions, and learning to release them by just letting the body and client’s nervous system release pattern after pattern of trauma, was most interesting. The studies included layers of embryology, levels of memory encoded in our human cells since conception. The biodynamic craniosacral approach works with these embryological layers to release trauma and pain patterns in the client’s body via mirroring with the therapist’s hands holding the body around the head and sacrum, feet or spine. It is fostering stillness in the client’s nervous system, and new re-organization of all cells occurs. This is felt as a pain pattern release, be it emotional and/or physical.
After completing the 2-year training, I started a therapy practice which keeps me busy to this present time. But still, I knew there was more that I could contribute to the healing profession than the work I did every day, being a craniosacral therapist.
Explorations Into Equine and Somatic Therapy
I started to have own horses at the same time I started the therapy practice. It took another few years until I was introduced to natural horsemanship, applying it with the 7 games of natural horsemanship involving several horse trainers.
For many years, dogs, cats, horses, and pets in general have been recognized as ‘therapy’ for their human companions, both for physical and emotional healing. Animals are so helpful in healing that hospitals now have therapy dogs and cats that visit the patients. But how can horses help with therapy?
One of my craniosacral teachers introduced me to Linda Kohanov’s work, ‘The Tao Of Equus’ (2001) and ‘Riding Between The Worlds’ (2003). She talks about ‘The Lost Art of Doing Nothing’, referring to the horses do not have to have a ‘job’. They do not need to win medals at dressage performances or barrel racing to be happy and content. Linda is a pioneer in the field of equine assisted psychotherapy.
I began to study her therapeutic approach in connection with natural horsemanship, researching any possible connection to my craniosacral work. The goal was to partner up with my horses to help my clients, in a faster and more effective way than craniosacral work just by itself. I found many similarities; craniosacral work is referred to as ‘the art of doing nothing’, mirroring locked up restricted patterns of the nervous system back to the client, via a very light touch of the therapist’s hands. These locked up restrictions can cause symptoms like physical and emotional pain patterns. The restrictions are caused by the nervous system responding to a trauma: physical or emotional. The nervous system responds to trauma by trying to contain the emotional or physical impact or injury by restricting the tissues, to free up the life supporting organs for survival. This can be related to the horse in a sense of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reactions, the horses are masters in that since they are prey animals. The humans living within civilization for centuries unconsciously resorted to the freeze version of the nervous system, freezing painful experiences right away to function at their best in society. Freezing trauma in the body works like encoding, encapsulating in the physical cells and tissues in the body.
Another connection in my experience was the work of Peter Levine’s ‘Waking the Tiger’ (1997). His teaching of somatic experiencing fit in with what I was researching, another connection with horse therapy, craniosacral work, and somatic therapy.
Levine explains that by creating a safe therapeutic space, theoretically and verbally re-living the trauma with the professional help of a licensed psychotherapist, but this time creating a different outcome of the traumatic experience, facilitates new neuron connections, thus releasing the traumatic patterns. In my journey to the horse-human connection to the pursuit of wisdom I did get certified in Level 1 and 2 of Peter Levine’s work.
However, I still was trying to find deeper ways to incorporate the equines with the craniosacral therapy. This happened in 2008, when I learned about Prescott College. They offered a 40-hour intensive workshop in equine assisted mental health. I signed up for it and went on my way to the ranch close to Prescott.
This was my first profound experience with horse and mental health professionals, working for over a week closely together with a heard of horses. Every day we did some different exercises. It started with creating a genogram, which is like a family tree. Just by doing that exercise, some of the participants showed emotional reactions. Another day we used the Gestalt approach and our group of people went out to the coral, starting to approach the horse herd. The exercise was intended to simulate a whole room full of people, a party, and one person was chosen to be the client. That client pretended to be a substance abuse recovering client. The party had many challenges, including alcohol being served. The client was practicing to set boundaries to tell everybody who offered her alcohol to say no, and the horses represented that challenge. It was amazing to see how that client’s self esteem grew by telling the horses no and setting her boundaries.
Another simpler exercise was that we were to choose a horse, pick up his feet and clean the hooves. One participant was trying very hard, but she could not pick up the hooves and the horse did not help either. She tried any way she could think of making noises, pinching the horse’s legs, even verbal pleading, but nothing worked. After a few minutes, she started to cry. The group gathered back together from the exercise, and we shared the experience. That particular participant expressed that she felt like a failure. The group leader asked her why she didn’t ask for help. She answered it was too embarrassing to ask for help and that’s probably why she never tries anything new.
She continued on and told the group that her need to look perfect and not ask for help was probably what she had done all her life. She said this most likely prevented her from doing things she had always yearned to try, both personally and professionally.
I would like to express one more simple exercise which affected me as a participant the most. It was leading a horse through a labyrinth. Trying to lead the big animal from point A to point B and C, not getting lost and overrun by the horse, and trying to provide safety and finding the way were most challenging. It reminded me strongly of the question ‘what is the purpose of my life?’ It strengthened my determination of finding a way to realize my dream of combining craniosacral therapy with horse therapy.
The Healing Nature of Horses
Even if one had never had much experiences around horses, it is most likely felt what horse lovers have felt for years: there is something about a horse that is just good for the mind and soul. As the awareness of this powerful effect of horses on people has grown, those in the therapy field have also began to turn to horses to help with a variety of issues their clients are experiencing.
Horses are masters at identifying what we need at any given moment. If we are in doubt or not clear about our intentions, the horse can educate us on how we are in the present moment. Horses excel as teachers, co-therapists, and guides. They will expose any incongruence we may have. What is the intrinsic nature of the horse that enables that process?
The horse is a prey animal, meaning they are constantly on alert to maintain their physical and emotional safety. Their survival depends on their instincts for self-preservation. They make decisions based on the understanding of the facts before them and what is going on in their environment. They do not ask why; they respond to what is presented before their eyes. Due to their nature, they are experts at mirroring back what human’s project through their emotions and behaviors.
Equine therapy is based on allowing the clients to find their own answers. Horses cannot be bullied or pushed around. People often think that a horse is stubborn or not cooperating, but when the person changes their behavior the horse responds differently. The response from the horse is mirroring the human. Exploring this technique, I have seen the benefits of horses in therapy. The horse has become a partner in healing and helping humans learn more about themselves, their interactions with others as well as to improve their communication skills.
Equine Facilitated Craniosacral Therapy
Equine therapy is basically interspecies mirroring (Hayes, 2015). One of the most intriguing pieces of neuro-scientific research to support this comes from the discovery and knowledge of what has been identified as “mirror neurons”. Mirror neurons reside in the brain of both humans and animals. Many researchers in the field of neuro-science believe that one function of mirror neurons is to create the capacity for emotions such as empathy and compassion. If this is true, it would add scientific credence to the existence of the powerful nonverbal communication and connections between horses and humans. The horses, by mirroring neurons, are naturally able to read the unconscious body language of humans, which reflect a person’s true feelings and pain patterns, regardless of what they say or do. Therefore, in addition to their hyper-vigilance and herd dynamic social skills, having and utilizing the same mirror neurons as humans has further enabled the horse to become a cutting-edge partner in the field of human self-actualization and healing.
In my experience, my connection as a craniosacral therapist partnering up with a horse or horse-herd has a double effect on a therapy session. Both the therapist’s and the horse’s mirror neurons are utilized for a reflective healing for the client. It is interspecies mirroring at its best. I accomplish that by starting the client on the treatment table, experiencing a shorter version of a craniosacral session, tracking whatever comes up in the body and nervous system. It is a gentle, hands-on approach that releases tensions deep in the body to relieve pain and dysfunction. Then we visit the horses outside. This equine/therapist team offers each client a profound recourse to reconnect with their own healing source empowering vitality and coping skills. This is accomplished by establishing and building relationships utilizing groundwork and the 7 games of natural horsemanship. No horse experience is necessary. After the client feels a connection communicating with the horse and the therapist, the client will continue with craniosacral therapy for the remaining session to measure and feel the profound results that our equine partners facilitated.
As mentioned in the Pursuing Wisdom Essays (Stogsdill 2015), “Wisdom is the fulfillment of nourishing our inner longing for deeper meaning and purpose”. Signs of wisdom deprivation may include anxiety, depression, addiction and destructive behavior, to name only a few. If we add other factors like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Birth Trauma, Attachment Disorders, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and other undiagnosed pain patterns, equine facilitated craniosacral therapy could be a great tool on the way to one’s purpose in life and healing.
Just as Gandhi and Thoreau were unique in the history of humanity, so can we, being individuals. Just as I was reminded what the purpose of my life could be by leading my horse through the labyrinth, so can each individual human being by taking advantage of an equine facilitated craniosacral therapy session. This can be helpful to discover and express one’s unique potential, to their individual and human purpose of life. Sharing my personal experience about my horse-human connection to my pursuit of wisdom is an ongoing journey. It is a start every day anew to discover my own and all other people’s lives I touch unique potentials.
Hayes, T. (2015). Riding Home: The Power Of Horses To Heal. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
Kohanov, L. (2003). Riding Between The Worlds. New World Library: Novato.
Kohanov, L. (2001). The Tao Of Equus. New World Library: Novato.
Stogsdill G. (2015). What is the Purpose of Life? Pursuing Wisdom Now.
Stogsdill, G. (2015). What is Wisdom and Why Pursue It? Pursuing Wisdom Now.
© 2015 Birgitta Kieckhaben