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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

The Healing Power of Relationships: Equine-Interactive Psychotherapy and Learning with James Casses

Imageries Photography

“How does it work?”  That’s a question I am often asked about equine-interactive psychotherapy and learning (EIPL). It also happens to be the question that many of my clients ask about relationships in general.

As social mammals, people exist in relationships—with lovers and family members; among groups of friends; as part of organizations, religions or political movements; and ultimately with ourselves.

And yet for many of us, the complexities of a relationship can delight or puzzle us in equal measure. We fear or avoid confrontation—or we are drawn to volatile relationships. We hesitate to speak our minds—or we interrupt and talk over each other. We may find ourselves in the same types of relationships with alarming consistency.

If we’re so drawn to relating, then why can it seem so complicated?

One of the reasons is that we have a hard time just being ourselves and speaking our minds clearly and reasonably. From early on, we are taught to please our parents and teachers. We learn that boys don’t cry and that girls shouldn’t speak up. By the time we are adults, most of us have perfected our camouflage and relegated our authentic selves to the shadows. We anticipate what others in our relationships may want and respond reflexively. This makes any relationship complex, especially a therapeutic one.

Incorporating a 1,500-pound, nonverbal creature like a horse in our work bypasses all that.

Horses don’t really mind who you are; they just want you to be upfront about it. As prey animals, they are keenly aware of their surroundings and suspicious of things that hide in the bushes. We humans, with our reluctance to reveal our true selves, metaphorically do just that.

Between a horse’s highly developed ability to sense its environment, and the aid of a clinician cultivating mindfulness and acceptance, interacting with a horse can help the client view herself in a startlingly accurate mirror. In this way, EIPL allows us to create therapeutic experiences within the context of relationships.

For example, we helped a young woman who had a pattern of developing unsatisfying relationships with men who seemed to view her as “mommy” or “servant,” only to leave her either way in the end. When we presented her with the task of setting limits with a horse, we watched as she invited the horse to be (almost too) close to her—only to send it away dramatically. She drew it back, only to overreact when it got close. After the horse eventually wanted nothing to do with her, she was able to perceive how her mixed messages played out with men.

Another time, a couple sought our help because she felt that he was too controlling, while he felt she was too needy. We asked each of them to move a horse through a series of obstacles individually. It was no surprise when the husband tried to strong-arm the mare—unsuccessfully—until he learned to be tender and to connect with her. The big light bulb went off, though, when within moments of the wife’s turn, she called out to her husband for instructions. In the context of a relationship with the horse, the simplest and most authentic truth emerges. He was no doubt domineering, but she literally witnessed herself inviting the very control she disliked. It is from this point that the true healing could begin.

Ultimately, that is how relationships work. They can heal us, help make us whole.

James Cassese, licensed clinical social worker, offers equine-interactive psychotherapy and learning, life coaching, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and sports coaching for riders, with individual and group sessions. He also offers energy balancing. For horses, he offers reiki, Source Point Therapy, EBCE (similar to EMDR for horses) and animal communication. For more info, call 212.477.4475 or visit