In 2005, I left a busy career on the trading floor of an investment bank and began training as a psychotherapist, helping human beings to increase their sense of choice in the world. Around the same time, I discovered the work of Monty Roberts, the internationally acclaimed ‘horse whisperer,’ famous for ‘joining-up’ with a wild Mustang in the Nevada desert. Just as in human psychotherapy, there are many forms of training in the horse world yet from the beginning I could see a connection between what I was learning in the psychotherapy training room and the Monty Roberts method of horsemanship. This made me think how the skills of horsemanship align with those of an effective psychotherapist. I start with a skill I believe is key to both professions - setting and maintaining boundaries.
Just as with human facilitators, good horse handlers know that negotiating the terms of the contract with their horse in the early stages of the relationship will mean an easier time in the long run. If we don’t do this consciously, then chances are a vacuum sets in and the horse may feel the need to fill it. With more challenging horses, just as with more challenging human clients, the terms of the contract are constantly being negotiated and boundaries are continuously being defined and redefined. Sometimes, this is the very essence of the work.
I recently worked with a horse called Bertie that didn’t like to stand at the mounting block. He would dart around, spinning his hind quarters away from it. There was no way you could mount him when he was in this state of mind; so I helped his owner to work with him on this problem. At first, she gave him the freedom to explore his options, which in this case was backing up. She allowed him to find out for himself where her boundaries were by making it uncomfortable when he backed up. She did this by taking the lead on the manoeuvre, backing him up further until she decided to stop. She also made it comfortable when he stood still by giving him a rub, slackening the lead rope and not asking anything else from him. Timing and consistency are everything.
Through these stages, they created a contract where they both win by fulfilling each of their obligations to each other. In three days, Bertie was mounting beautifully even in busy showlike environments.
For psychotherapeutic work with people, the skills required are very similar. I once worked with a young girl whose family was suffering from extreme financial hardship. To begin with she presented as a polite, socially well adjusted, intelligent little girl. I thought I had been sent the wrong client. About half way through the year long programme, I began to get another part of her. This was a part that hadn’t been given much airtime until then. So when it did surface, it was infused with rage and expressed itself with physical violence. Just as Bertie’s owner and I allowed him to express himself, my job with the little girl was to create a space where the enraged part of her could show up in the room. To do this, I had to maintain what Carl Rogers (a founder of the humanistic approach to psychology) refers to as an ‘unconditional positive regard.’ However, I also had to be very clear that certain behaviours were unacceptable while she was experiencing this part of herself. Just as with some horses, she didn’t like the feeling of crossing over a boundary, but to find out where the boundary was she had to behave in a way that would test it. Through testing it, she could also find out whether I was consistent and whether she was safe or not.
In my experience, many horse ‘problems’ come from insecurity. Take Bertie – he wasn’t moving because he was deliberately seeing what he could get away with. He was unsure. No one had ever been clear and consistent enough with him to show him what was expected. Once he understood his end of the contract both the owner and I heard him breathe out a huge sigh of relief. Being ‘boundaried’ sounds simple but it isn’t always easy in practice - I think any mother will agree. Deciding early on where our own personal boundaries are; giving the client (human and horse) the freedom to discover where they are; finding a way of communicating our boundary in a way that feels right for you; responding in a timely fashion; and being consistent in that communication - these are all important skills in their own right.