Most clients come to us because they want to change something that is happening in their lives – and most people usually don’t take action to make change until they reach an intolerable level of dissatisfaction, concern, or distress. This is often the state clients are in when they arrive for a session with us.
Dissatisfaction, concern, and distress are all forms of stress on our bodies, and activate our natural defense response system – this is often referred to as our fight-flight-freeze response. While a small amount of stress can be helpful and necessary to sharpen our focus at times, it is meant to be short-lived, allowing the body to return to a relaxed state. For many people, coming to an equine experiential learning or therapy session can in itself initiate some stress response. So the likelihood of people being in a stressed state when they arrive for a session is high.
Clients are not their most creative or resourceful when stressed, as their ability to think clearly is compromised. This is because our bodies release cortisol and adrenalin in preparation for a defense response – which suppresses our neocortex, the analytical, thinking brain. In this state, we tend to be more reactive rather than reflective. Depending on the level of stress your client is in when he or she arrives, his or her capacity to be open and resourceful to new outcomes can be significantly diminished.
Furthermore, stress is linked to emotional pain – such as frustration, anger, fear, or despair. The part of our brains that registers pain does not distinguish physical pain from emotional pain. They are treated the same way. So when clients are in pain – whether physical or emotional, they can be distracted, and not as open, creative, and resourceful as they need to be to make the changes they seek.
As facilitators we can learn to recognise the signs of stress – even when clients say they are ‘good’ when we ask them how they are. We can then prepare clients for their session with the horses to increase the probability of a safe and beneficial outcome – for the clients as well as for us and the horses.
How do stressed clients affect the horses?
Horses are hard-wired to be sensitive and respond to their environment – mainly to determine how safe they are, and also seeking comfort. When a client enters their space who is in a state of stress, the horses can feel it – through a process called ‘neuroception’ (a term coined by Dr. Stephen Porges). Their nervous systems are communicating with others’ nervous systems to determine how safe they are. This is why we can sometimes observe unusual behaviour in the horses – they are responding to discordant energy, that feels uncomfortable and maybe even unsafe.
Since we usually cannot be certain about the degree of discordant energy that our client is holding, we have a duty of care to our horses to ensure that this discordant energy is contained – for the benefit and safety of the client as well as the horses.
Many people believe that horses can take care of themselves, but many others will attest to the fact that their horses have become despondent or ‘burned out.’ I don’t believe It is their role to take on or engage with excessive discordant energy – coming from the client, and especially not from us.
Being in a confined space – even if it is the size of a small paddock, the horses cannot ‘run to safety,’ when clients with discordant energy enter their space. Consequently they rely on us to keep them safe.
We could speculate that as their ‘human leader,’ or at least their human carer, we potentially betray our horses’ trust each time we expose them to discordant energy – particularly when it is intense.
What can we do?
In Western medicine, patients must be stabilised first before any intervention can happen. So too, with our work, It is important that we stabilise our client as much as possible before exposing them to the horses – for the following reasons:
- to engage the client’s thinking brain, and prevent it from being flooded and compromised
- to ensure the client has access to all his or her somatic resources (body intelligence)
- to avoid adverse impact on the horses
In this context, stabilisation means to bring the client’s autonomic nervous system into a more regulated state. Ideally we want our clients to function within a ‘window of tolerance’ so that their creative, analytical, thinking brains stay ‘online.’ This window of tolerance is different for everyone, and as facilitators, we need to learn to recognise the signs of their nervous system activation, and take appropriate action to support the client to stay in their window of tolerance – before entering the horses space, as well as when they are in with the horses.
You can learn more about process of stabilisation by attending our Foundation Training Module, and Working with Individuals Module.