Working with Craziness Using Equine-Assisted Therapy

By Pat Rothchild

The decision to heal humans with horses is huge. There are loads of factors to take into consideration, whether you’re in the field as a horse person, therapist, educator or spiritual guide. This piece is about working with human nuttiness. If you’re offering services to humans, you will encounter craziness. It’s just what is so about people.

In the States, we’re scared of crazy. We spend incredible energy denying our nuttiness. Every human I’ve encountered thus far has had some. Some have a lot. For others, it’s a little helping that’s well concealed. Everyone has some though. That’s right, everyone, you and me included.

Had we not been thoroughly conditioned to fear those aspects of ourselves that seem to take control of our ships and try to run us ashore from time to time, we’d be eager to learn how to harness that energy for good. That’s not how people respond to their weirdness though. For the most part, they deny it with vehemence. This is understandable, considering what we as a culture do to certifiably crazy folks.

In the nineteen-seventies, Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, closed the State-run mental hospitals. He effectively threw thousands of deeply ill people onto the streets. They’re still there. Now, prisons and local jails fill their beds with those who cause too much disturbance for the general population while they slowly succumb to life on the streets. There, those who can be forced to function, fill menial jobs for which the prison-industrial complex pay one another, but not more than a few cents to the laborer. That’s slave labor and is perfectly legal here, once someone has been convicted of a crime. For a mentally ill person, that crime may have been peeing on the street, looking at a cop wrong or praying while brown or black. Where else, pray tell, should they pee or do anything else? There is no place for most while they’re in the throes of their nuttiness. This reinforces our perception of craziness as being rooted in evil. It’s not, but we’re led to believe that it’s a personal choice, as we were told was the situation with gender preference. That’s bull too.

I did my professional training in psych in the seventies. I was deeply called to the professional mandate to heal the human soul. From what I could see then, that was the most important work there was. It looked to me as if nuttiness was at the bottom of most of the dysfunctional decisions humans made. And, we humans were making a lot of crazy decisions back then. Yes, they appear to be even worse now. Craziness is like that. If not properly tended, it grows. With quality care, the nuttiness can be pruned and shaped into a beautifully productive being. It takes time and care though, which is in short supply.

Instead of time and care, most people with funky behavioral patterns are offered psychotropic pharmaceuticals. The nifty thing about these drugs is that they make pharmaceutical companies big money. Only chemo-therapy produces more revenue than psychotropic drugs for big pharma. Everybody in health care who reads professional journals is treated to full-page-colored ads for these drugs before every article. Heck, everybody who watches television gets those ads served up with the News.

Mostly, the folks who prescribe them have little training and no interest in treating mental health issues. They often don’t know that the pharmaceuticals don’t work. They don’t know that they contain chemicals known to cause serious neurological damage, especially with long-term use. That, in my mind, constitutes intentional ignorance. Jails and prisons “treat” mental illnesses in their populations with psychotropic pharmaceuticals. When you give people with sick nervous systems neurotoxins, they don’t get better. They do, however, become more compliant. Compliance has nothing to do with health.

In short, we humans have few places to turn to figure out how to deal with those aspects of ourselves that aren’t so good at complying with societal norms. Since a lot of our social norms are in themselves born of craziness, no one can be compliant all the time. Most people are scared to death that their version of nuttiness will get discovered. This is no joke. The consequences can be devastating. That, I think, is why we’re so likely to be inauthentic.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Authenticity is what horses love. Inauthenticity scares them or pisses them off. That’s true of all domesticated critters that I’ve worked with. The wild ones whom I’ve been privileged to know have responded similarly. They too appear willing and sometimes eager to connect with folks when we’re in a Mindfulness pattern. They fade into the scenery when we’re not. Humans can’t be inauthentic and Mindful simultaneously. That’s one of Mindfulness’s cooler properties.

So, in working with animals to heal people, you will be confronted with peoples’ nuttiness. I’ve learned some tricks to cope. I’d like to share some with you. Hopefully, it will provide a few guideposts for your journey.

Tricks for Coping with Nuttiness

First, I teach every new client how to achieve Mindfulness before engaging critters in their process. I want/need to know that the client has the skill to shift his or her consciousness at will. We all shift our consciousness all the time. About every ninety minutes we trance out for a few minutes. When I studied the phenomena a few decades ago, no one knew why. I don’t know if anyone has looked since we’ve developed the technology to. Our nervous systems appear to be designed to cycle through several different patterns of consciousness daily. It doesn’t take a lot of skill to begin to call on specific patterns willfully. So, the good news is that Mindfulness is first and foremost a natural state of mind. Our bodies know how to get there. We’re just teaching people how to bring that state on when they want or need it.

It’s easy and fun to teach this. Your clients will love it, after some of them resist crazily though. Horses are by far the best allies for teaching Mindfulness to horse-green people that I’ve encountered. Sometimes, it’s harder with experienced horse people, especially highly-skilled performance specialists. They’ve had so much practice engaging horses through their Dominion Delusion, that it can be tougher for them to get to Mindfulness in the presence of horses. That’s why NO CLIENT gets to interact directly with any critter who is working with me before I am satisfied that they can get themselves into Mindfulness easily.

Oh my, I’ve heard all manner of excuses and arguments about this! But this is one thing that I hold fast to in every session with every client. I do this for a lot of reasons. First, I feel that it’s an ethical duty to the critters. Animals are disturbed by inauthenticity. When critters are disturbed, they can do silly stuff that could escalate the clients’ disturbances. I don’t want that! I want to give the critters I’m working with the safest, sanest humans I can to do their mojo on. Critters know how to connect with us when our nervous systems are in a Mindfulness pattern. That connection appears to heal neurological imbalances. That’s where craziness lives. For them to do what they do most effectively, we need to present them with people who are prepared to receive their gifts.

The consequences for failing to fully prepare clients, even those who appear to be super sane, can be dramatically yucky. This is rare, but it does come up, so it’s important to have some principles under our belt to deal with it. That way, we don’t have to worry over a boogey man. We need to be fully present in sessions to do our part, and those back-burner worries just detract from the quality of our work.

Once you, your clients, and assistants all know how to get themselves to Mindfulness at will, you have the skills necessary to ground and calm the client whatever arises. That frees everybody to bring their best game to the sessions. This makes everything easier, faster and far more fun. Fun is good. In healing mental and emotional imbalances, it’s critical.

We humans aren’t equipped to have fun when we’re scared. Some folks get off on the aftermath of fear, but no one can be Mindful and fearful simultaneously. When we’re in a state of Mindfulness, our nervous systems make new neurons and send them in search of new linkages to metabolize all the information that becomes available. That also appears to be how or when our brains make glitch corrections. This is how we want our clients’ brains focused, to maximize the healing potential of the moment.

So, when we’re in states of Mindfulness during at least some of the session, we’re making ourselves maximally available to the horses, assistants and clients we’re working with. Things that we probably wouldn’t notice in other states-of-mind become glaringly obvious when we’re in the zone. We’re also sending out lots less noise. Our signal-to-noise ratio goes way up when we’re Mindful. So does that of all the humans in the session. That opens the space to deal with stuff – that may make us uncomfortable in other situations – far more effectively and without generating undue stress.

Craziness Loves Drama

Like Mindfulness and other normal states-of-mind, craziness is episodic. Even those with deep-seated thought, mood or character illnesses aren’t perpetually in the throes of their diseases. They come and go. You want whatever mental illness that may be lurking within the client to stay in lurk mode. You do not want to invite it out to play. Craziness is magnetized to drama. Avoid drama but let go of your fear around it. Even when drama comes out to play, it can be managed.

There are three things that invariably produce drama in the human psyche: abandonment, betrayal and shame. These are the archetypal wounds we humans are vulnerable to. Most of us endured one or more of these traumas during childhood. No matter how well-intentioned our families were, they were human, so occasionally they messed up. When we endure an archetypal injury in our youth, a weak spot is generated in our psyche. I think of them as stress sinks.

Then, as we develop, we forget about the initial trauma, but our bodies don’t. Henceforth, every time we’re abandoned, betrayed or shamed, we jet right back into the original wound. What shows up is the person’s today-body piloted by the wounded psyche of the person at the developmental stage of the original unresolved trauma. Yes, I get that this sounds weird and complicated, but it’s actually simple and quite beautiful. There’s a bunch of healing opportunities that arise in those moments. They’re lurking under the stress of the moment.

What we healers see, is a reasonably functional human who suddenly transforms into a really upset two, three or four-year old often in full-on tantrum mode. The sort-of-sane person with whom you began the session, isn’t who you’re working with now. The person in front of you is a little child who has just been abandoned, betrayed or shamed. They’re afraid that they’re going to die and everything they’re doing is an effort that makes sense to the little wounded tyrant within. That’s the psyche that you’re here to heal. The owner probably didn’t know it was even in them. You are NOT being jerked around.

Yes, it’s disturbing; sometimes it’s dangerous. The best way by far to mitigate this type of hazard is to get thyself into Mindfulness, connect firmly with the client and your assistant and, when the opening comes, move the client out of range of the horses. Then, stay connected.

It’s hard to come up with rules of thumb around dramatic incidents around horses. They arise fast and can take all manner of forms. What I do is to go immediately into Mindfulness around other people’s drama. That steers me outside of the panic zone, which is drama’s traveling companion. I can’t do jack if I’m panicky too!

Usually, if I can get into Mindfulness, I can give the client a leg up too. Once they’re back into the Mindfulness zone, they have more choices available too. Then I get them away from the horses. If someone is in danger of going down their crazy rabbit hole, I first get them out of the horses’ living space. That’s for the horses. It’s also for the client, my assistant and me. If things are going to blow, I don’t want to have to worry about the safety and comfort of my critter helpers. I need to focus on calming the client.

People who are in the throes of a mental illness aren’t in control of their reactions, in that period. They will regain control. There are things that we can do to help. First, stay connected. Even if your instincts scream, RUN!, don’t. You signed up for this and you bloody well need to see it through. There are ways to do it without killing yourself. This is never easy. It’s not designed to be easy. Life isn’t easy. This is a natural process. Your fear of it could get you killed though.

Being in connection with a human in the throes of his or her crazy is extremely painful. It’s just as painful for your assistant and even more so for the horses. Keep that in mind. You will all need to detox from this sort of energy afterward. Your response can protect you, your team and the client.

So, this is one time where it works to do the opposite of what your body-mind-spirit tells you. Stay connected. Stay loving. Stay calm. Stay present. Do not try to control the action. Instead, try greeting it. Strike up a conversation with it. Ask it about itself. Be curious and open. Don’t do this alone, especially if you’re not experienced. This is one of many reasons that it’s a good idea to always have others on site when working with clients.

Back Up Is Crucial

When we have back up, we rarely need it. When we don’t, the opportunities to need it seem to pop up everywhere. When we provide services to humans, this is in part due to the internal constraints most of us have around our nutty parts. We all get that our crazy disturbs others as much as it does us. If there are more other humans around, then our nervous systems know that we could be overpowered. So, we’re less likely to become overpowered by our own crazy. That’s just an autonomic survival skill, it has nothing to do with intentional manipulation.

The same holds true for our clients. Their bodies are less likely to go into those nutty spheres if the situation isn’t safe for it. I’m not in the business of making safe zones for craziness. My goal is to give clients the tools to manage their nuttiness with creativity and love. I don’t need or want to induce it out to play to treat it! But, when it shows up, I have to deal with it.

It can take a while for any human to regain composure after an episode of craziness. My perspective on the work is if someone loses control of his or her crazy during a session, I’m with them until they’ve regained enough composure to safely be alone, or I pass them into the arms of their support system. That’s one of the reasons that I always get an emergency contact for every client. I’ve only needed to use it twice, but I was sure glad to have it those two times. Most frequently, these episodes are small and their duration is limited.

Stress reactions can come and go at lightening speeds. Mindfulness can cut through stress reactions relatively easily. People who are contending with thought, mood or character disorders can be trickier to manage. These diseases all have their own rhythms and timing. They’re all tough to stay connected with. It’s where the healing lies though. Isn’t that what you signed up for?

“Heck, NO! I’m an educator or spiritual guide, I don’t do crazy!” Then don’t do people. Go educate or guide wildlife then. People all have at least a bit of crazy. There’s nothing so entitled or special about you to make you immune either. If being around nuttiness isn’t your thing, you’re in good company, but the wrong gig.

Therapists & Horses Need Self-Care

Even great healers burnout, if they don’t take exquisite care of themselves. The need for that self-care grows with the length of time one does this work. It’s very taxing to our nervous systems. That’s one of the reasons that there aren’t that many senior therapists still on the job.

We have to take regular sabbaticals to maintain our mental and physical health too. It’s critical to create good relationships with others in the field with whom you can discuss cases AND your feelings about your clients. You will love some or even most of your clients, if you’re good at what you do, but some you won’t.

Everybody who heals humans and lives to tell about it, has to design self-care into their practices. This has the added benefit of providing excellent role modeling for our clients and assistants. Again, this is part of maintaining your team. Horses can burnout even faster than humans.

Part of my self-care practice is to do pre-and-post Mindfulness sessions with all the horses involved in the client’s session. If another human has helped in the session, I include her too. There’s no more efficient way to drop stress than to play Mindfully with a band of horses. The horses drop their stress too. Then, I get myself moving fast enough to become dewy for at least twenty minutes. This let’s my body metabolize the physiological metabolites of stress. I’ve found no substitute for exercise. It’s a physical must-have after each session. I’m getting older, so the number of sessions I can do in one day is far fewer than what I could easily manage a few years ago. It’s each of our responsibility to monitor ourselves closely so we can continually fiddle with our self-care regimens. One career-long need is to continually change up our self-care patterns.

What we bring to the healing party matters. When we bring our authentic selves, we’re most likely to succeed. This can be tough in today’s mixed-up world. Professional organizations counsel against psychotherapists revealing “too much of themselves.” In some respects, I agree with that. Our clients’ sessions aren’t ours. They belong to the client. We’re there to work for the client and that’s where we need to be focused.

But we need to make an authentic connection with the client too. The frame within which the healing happens is relationship. Yes, the horses will be carrying a lot of that weight, but you need to be in there too. And, if you want to be effective, you’re going to have to show up as who you are. Presenting yourself as some picture of ‘healer,’ won’t work. No sort of pretense will work. Only you doing you will be effective.

Privacy vs. Authenticity

So, what do we do about those parts of ourselves that are private? We can keep private stuff private. That’s fine and necessary. We just need to be willing to be up-front about it. Clients often ask me personal questions. Sometimes my answer is that I prefer to keep that aspect of my life private. There are some things that I’m open about and some that I keep private. We each need to figure out what’s so for us now. We also need to develop enough flexibility to allow those parameters to change as we do.

I’m a political animal. I’ve held a tiny elected office and have been politically active throughout my adult life. I never try to hide this. My vehicles are usually festooned with stickers, as are my social media profiles. I never bring this up with clients, but if they ask, I respond honestly, even when I know that my response may be offensive to the client.

I’ve learned to respect my clients’ agency. If they don’t like my politics, then I’m probably not the best person to work with them. I’m probably not the right healer for them, if I don’t like their politics. I want them to have the best results possible with their therapy, so if I’m likely to get balled up around their belief system, I’m not going to be their best therapist. I’d far rather discover this sooner than later.

Frankly, healing is taxing work. There’s not enough money to compensate for what my team and I do, so I want to do it for those I think will make the most of it. I have every right to limit who I work with if I’m in private practice. When I work for an agency, I give up that right. You will too. There are advantages to both. I’ve learned tremendous lessons working with people in agency settings whom I never would have seen in private practice. One of those things is that I’m lousy with critter abusers and arsonists. I insert that in any contractual arrangements I negotiate with agencies. They need to know this and I need to take responsibility to not get myself or a potential client into an untenable situation.

I think that it’s only fair for people to know what’s important to me, if that’s important to them. Some folks have little curiosity about that. Those folks don’t go scrolling through social media to figure out who I am, so it doesn’t come up. When it does, I tell them. I happily counsel folks to keep hunting for their best healer, if I’m not her. Yes, it’s cost me clients and jobs. That’s fine.

Healing requires a lot of energy on the part of the healer. I’ve been at this a long time. I have little interest in squandering my mojo on folks who aren’t on my values team. I won’t refuse service to people based on my values. I will, however, answer any questions potential or current clients may have about mine. And, should my values prove problematic for them, I encourage them to look elsewhere. I can’t do my job authentically when I‘m hiding behind it. I doubt that anyone can.

We each have to make our own arrangements around these issues. Yours will be different from mine. That’s as it should be. There are loads of folks out there that could benefit from working with critters on their healing journey. You may do well with people I would not. I figure that there are great horses and healers out there for everybody. They can be hard to find, but they’re there. If it’s not me, that’s fine. There are plenty for whom I’m a great choice. It’s my job to make sure those are the ones I work with.

We are always changing and growing in this work. We have to. It’s one of the things I love most about this calling. I just can’t stay stuck in anything and do what I do. You won’t be able to stay stuck either. It’s a life-long prescription for growth, even when you don’t feel like it. And although the craziness may be challenging, it’s an essential part of this work. Having the methods and structure to deal with crazy when it emerges protects both you and your client.

AUTHOR BIO: Pat Rothchild is a psychotherapist with 36 years of practice under her belt. Shifting her perspective from trainer to student in relation to her horses, cats, dogs and chickens was a hugely productive step, as was the journey from western medicine to holistic healing. She feels plants and animals are stepping up to offer us paths toward healing our Dominion Delusion – which has led to the destruction of our planet. And we should make ourselves available to learn and practice their teachings.

Working with Craziness Using Equine-Assisted Therapy

5 thoughts on “Working with Craziness Using Equine-Assisted Therapy

  • February 3, 2017 at 9:16 pm

    Very interesting article Pat – they did the same thing in the UK; just closed mental hospitals and put people out on the street. I also like your perspective, that we’ve all got some crazy in us. True dat!

  • February 4, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Thank you, Jini. I hadn’t realized that that the UK had adopted the same staggeringly stupid approach. The long-term results are reflected in our wobbly governments now.

    Stressing already vulnerable populations leads to the development of stress reactivity. Unresolved, that yields progressively more virulent character disorders. This is the perfect medium to grow the type of authoritarian governments we see sprouting up around the globe now.

    Malignant narcissists are both victims and facilitators of this natural disaster. They magnetize those whose neuronal nets are stress damaged. Their leadership is extraordinarily compelling to those who are compromised by stress.

    When we cast our gaze back, we see that this is how empires die. There’s nothing new going on here. What is new is the capacity of individuals to communicate across distances instantly. That’s HUGE! It just may be how we turn the wheel of our ship of state.

    Reconnecting with our natural allies neutralizes much of the toxicity inherent to the current “world order.” Horses are apex healers for this phenomena, when they’re well managed by skilled, healthy co-facilitators.

  • February 4, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Oh beautifully and very well said Pat! And if we do TRULY believe that all is (in it’s most minute form) energy and that we are all One. Then rather than feeling hopeless, overwhelmed and despairing, we can just go out to our horse(s), sit in nature and drop into the space of wellness, connection and the web of love that spans this planet – anchored by the tree roots and the mycellium network. AND THEN we will have done a very powerful thing to neutralize and shift this toxicity. I love that. I will also hold this intention when I connect with my horses and the land, trees – like this shot from a couple days ago. Come into this picture Pat, and join us!

    • February 4, 2017 at 4:56 pm

      Yes, being mindful among horses sort of vaccinate us against many of the mind-bending, soul slitting effects of our cultural dysfunction. In my opinion, this is critical, but, in these times not enough. If we’re going to avoid the abyss of extinction, we need to take our balanced, supple and relaxed selves into the quest for cultural sanity. In my opinion, this moment calls us to Grace.

      • February 4, 2017 at 8:38 pm

        Yes, but I don’t think DOING from a place of striving or fear or panic does much good in the cyclical nature of life. Contributing whatever we can to this planet from a place of peace, love – and dare we even hope – joy, has the greatest effect, I think. And if we can’t get there, or not often, then we just do our best. As long as we are conscious and aware, it’s all good.


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