It's often said that being around horses is good for the soul. And it's undoubtedly true that spending time in their company can be calming, and help bring us back to ourselves when we've got caught up in the busy-ness of life. Herd-time can even be a lifeline when we've experienced trauma: a rare place of safety, connection and belonging. But when we talk about healing trauma with help from horses, we're talking about something much more specific: working with a practitioner who can use their own, and the horse's, nervous system to sense and track trauma energy as it's held in the person's body, and, with resonance and precision, to release it gradually, allowing flow to return to the person's body, mind, and life.
Hoping that if we hang out with horses long enough our trauma will heal on its own is similar to believing that meditation on its own will heal trauma. Neither on its own has a lasting impact on how life feels once we leave the paddock or get up off the cushion. Both can be forms of "bliss bypass" - confusing something that helps us to feel good while we're doing it for the messy, scary work of genuine healing.
"Bliss bypass" is a great term: I picked it up from a fascinating conversation, recorded recently at the 2019 Science and Non-Duality conference, between Peter Levine - one of the pioneers of body-focussed trauma therapy - and contemporary spiritual teacher Thomas Hübl. (You can see the talk on YouTube here.) The topic was the relationship between healing trauma and spiritual growth, and for me it beautifully illuminates what this work with the horses is really about.
Healing trauma matters. It matters for us individually, because unconscious trauma energy, as Thomas Hübl puts it, is destiny: the frozen past will continue to repeat itself until it is released. And it matters collectively for the same reason: we live in a world connected and divided by individual and shared trauma, where the frozen past repeats itself as present day waking nightmare. Healing trauma, therefore, is about creating a different kind of society, and it is also a necessary part of spiritual growth, because "ultimately, trauma is a disorder of not being able to be in the here and now"(Peter Levine), because it prevents us from making conscious choices, and because it disrupts our relationships with each other and our Self.
So where do we start? Peter Levine's answer: anywhere. We don't need a conscious memory of trauma, and nor does it really matter whether we think that our trauma is personal, past-life, ancestral or collective (I and the horses hear a lot of wondering about this). We can just start with our symptoms, and work from there. By learning how to welcome and integrate our frozen parts, regulate our own nervous systems, and truly be present in the here-and-now, we can restore the flow of our own lives, and contribute to the healing of collective trauma. Peter Levine again: "every time anyone makes this shift, it affects everyone," rippling out to transform our families and communities.
Hübl stresses that this healing develops our own "relational capacities", which creates an environment in which others, too, can heal. I think what Hübl is saying here is more-or-less what I've written about in an earlier blog, that all healing happens in and through relationships, and also what I've observed in partnering with the horses to teach non-violent communication: that the capacity to be relational and to accompany our own and others' sensations, feelings, and needs with precision creates the conditions necessary for healing. The precision bit is important: specific attunement to and accompaniment of the individual's felt experience is what matters here, rather than generic "love and light".
Trauma work asks us to go into the dark ocean of the body, trusting that we will not drown, that we will be held, that there will be a lifeline. Including horses in this process is helpful for many reasons: being around them makes it easier for many people to be in their bodies enough to feel their sensations and emotions; healthy horses supported by their herd and the human facilitator can stay emotionally regulated and resourced even when the client is struggling; and horses know how to support each other to release trauma energy, and can offer this support to clients - who may find the support of a horse easier to receive, at least to start with. But perhaps the most valuable reasons, ultimately, are that horses do not think in terms of "light" and "darkness", "good" and "bad", "spiritual" and "earthly", and they recognise when we're being inauthentic. So they they welcome every part of us as it emerges from the depths, they know when we're trying to bypass our pain, and they will willingly stand, or walk, or lie, beside us as we heal. As a coach and facilitator, I am grateful every day for how the horses help me to offer attunement and accompaniment to support growth and healing, and to restore flow to our lives.