I had a 21 year old woman wanting to start therapy. She contacted us because she was suffering from an eating disorder and anxiety. When she arrived at the farm she said a timid hello and filled out the initial consultation forms with shaking hands. We walked into the arena where there were three horses waiting and she stood on the inside of the gate.
My Equine Specialist and I invited the young woman to introduce herself to the horses. When we do this, clients will generally walk up to the horses, pat them, talk to them, ask us questions about them, move with them, brush them – interact! Some people are so caught up with the horses that it is difficult to move them onto the next activity or tell them that the session has finished. Not this client.
I had never seen anyone stand in the one position for the entire session, until this day. She didn’t speak to us, she didn’t move, she stood with her head looking down at her feet.
My Equine Specialist and I glanced at each other as the minutes ticked by. Do I ask her if she is okay? Is she bored? Does she want to leave? Did she not understand what we were asking her to do? This is awkward. What do I do? What are the horses doing? They are standing still too. Do something horses! She will probably never come back. I wish we could have helped her. How long is she going to stand there? How much longer to go? It’s only been 5 minutes! I should say something.
I didn't say anything. We stood in silence and stillness, my mind running rampant, for 42 minutes. I had convinced myself that she hated being there, that the therapy was useless for her, and that she was never going to come back. After those painfully awkward and long minutes, something happened. One of the horses walked over and stood in front of her, it’s head almost touching hers. The client didn’t look up. I held my breath.
For the remainder of the session they stood in front of each other, still as statues, until the client shifted weight off her left leg. Not two seconds later, the horse shifted weight off his leg too. I heard my Equine Specialist let out a gasp. She must have been holding her breath as well.
We advised our client that the time was up and without a word she left the farm and drove away. We didn’t hear from her for two months - not that we were expecting to – until one day she called to book in. When she arrived she handed us ten pages full of journaling about her experience in that first session.
I learn two important lessons that day. The first was that things are not always as they seem. To me, that sessions was a failure because it didn’t look the way most others looked. To her, it was one of the most powerful experiences she had been through, and the catalyst for the biggest changes in her life.
The second lesson I learned was that silence is powerful. One of the thoughts written down on the pages was that she was constantly “talked at” – by her parents, by her friends, by her doctors, and by her other therapists. She was thankful that she had an hour of silence and that we didn’t demand anything from her, that the horses simply stood with her, and that she could hear her own thoughts. We held space for her, and that was exactly what she needed.
The following sessions she engaged in activities with the horses, she spoke to us about her life, and she started making positive changes to grow and heal. She couldn’t have done this without experiencing that first session. I as a therapist also grew. I now embrace silence, I go into sessions intending to hold space for people, and I no longer have expectations of what a perfect session should look like. I couldn’t have done this without that first session either. Thank you to this client, and to all my clients who have made me a better therapist.
Founder / Psychologist at HEAL Psychology
Samantha Tassini, Psychologist and Founder of HEAL Psychology shares her experience as a therapist and in helping people heal with horses.