Horses and Emotional Regulation
When we ask clients how they feel when they interact our herd, we often hear the response ‘they make me feel safe and I feel I can trust them, and I hope that they trust me.’
For many clients this is a significant breakthrough. We see clients showing clear affection to the horses. Clients will stroke the horses and often show clear affection for them by hugging them. We have many lovely photos of the horses with their heads on clients’ shoulders and the smiles are something to behold.
We know that this bond might be the closest a client has had to a positive emotional experience for some time. For clients experiencing trauma of emotional dysregulation, staying within the bounds of their ‘Window of Tolerance’ can be a real challenge. Coined by psychologist Dan Siegal, the window of tolerance refers to our ability to cope with life’s stressors. The more stress and trauma clients experience, the harder it is to stay in the window. Coping resources get stretched and people either jump or get pushed out of their window. As a result people start to feel out of control and may become emotionally dysregulated and potentially may experience either hyperarousal [ agitation, anger] of hyporarousal [ numb, withdrawn].
The unconditional positive regard that horses will show to clients promotes a sense of safety and trust. In turn, we find that when clients feel that sense of safety, they feel more comfortable to talk about their feelings and emotions, either directly to the horse or to the horse and the practitioner. This helps expand the window of tolerance and gives the clients’ some resources to draw on when they feel a buildup of stressors.
We encourage clients to use the positive emotions and feelings they have with the horses as a grounding resource to help them stay in their window. Some even carry a photo of one of the horses as a reminder to help them get into the moment.