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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Monday, March 10, 2014

Finding Purpose and Meaning through SPIRIT: A Somatic Equine Workshop Experience

By Colleen DeRango, MA, LISAC, SEP, The Meadows

As I turn off Highway 60, and follow the bumpy gravel road with its winding twists and turns, I feel as if I am entering an enchanted desert valley. The railroad trestle anchored on each side by the rustic red cliffs feels like a gateway of sorts; emotionally and physically, where one experiences the sensation of leaving one world, and entering another. As I drive through the wash and turn the corner onto Rancho Rio Bonita — the ranch — I feel what our clients describe as “the subtle shift into calm.” The glowing campfire in the distance, moonlit in the early morning hours, encourages a welcome comfort.
One of my favorite moments is when clients first arrive at this magical place. I love watching their eyes widen in wonder, their breathing shift, their lips form into a smile, and often times tear-filled eyes, followed usually by a moment or two of silence. The words that are often expressed are along the lines of: “This is so beautiful; I can heal here.” Each time this happens, I look at the long row of stalls, each housing a different color and breed of horse; the working round-pen near the tree that serves as an umbrella to the table, chairs and campfire beneath; the two large pastures in the distance filled with horses of the ranch owners; and even further away the cattle-working round-pen and arena; all surrounded by the desert mountains, cliffs, and Hassayampa River giving one the sense that “the container is big enough” for healing to occur.

The Workshop

Spirit: A Somatic Equine Workshop uniquely interweaves The Meadows Model, Somatic Experiencing® (SE), mindfulness and natural horsemanship to create the space for healing to happen. Integrating experiential activities with the most gifted clinicians of all, horses, fosters self-esteem, boundaries, spontaneity, and perhaps most importantly, nervous system regulation. The Spirit Workshop was created exclusively for a small group of no more than five participants, and is a five-day outdoor experience facilitated by me, a seasoned therapist at The Meadows and Somatic Experiencing practitioner, along with an uncommon and highly-skilled horseman/trainer, our local Buddy Uldrikson, who is also trained in SE.
It’s challenging to try to describe what the Spirit Workshop is about partly because it is an “experiencing of” versus a “description about.”
The human mind is always thinking, thinking, thinking, and it even wants to keep thinking in the round-pen with a horse; until “coaxed” into not thinking and just allowed to “be.” This experience of being, and being in connection with another “Being” which happens to be a 1,200 pound four-legged teacher often feels as if a miracle has taken place. Yet, it isn’t a miracle, rather, it is just the experiencing of “presence;” presence in communion, or true connection with another.

Pathways to Healing

Research has proven that having the ability to be fully present in one’s body is one of the pathways to trauma healing. Trauma healing is what The Meadows does really well. More than 35 years ago Pia Mellody’s (Senior Clinical Advisor at The Meadows) genius, along with that of a few gifted counselors, developed The Meadows Model. This therapeutic model views addictions, anxiety and depression through the lens of trauma. As counselors at The Meadows, we are fortunate because we have access to our Senior Fellows including Peter Levine, Ph.D., Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, and Dr. Shelley Uram, all of whom are world-renowned in understanding Trauma, Trauma Healing, and Trauma and the Brain. Peter Levine is the originator and developer of Somatic Experiencing, one of the most profound methods used in trauma healing, and the one we facilitate in our Spirit workshop.
When I first heard Dr. Levine say, “trauma is in the body, not in the event,” it changed my life as a therapist forever. There was a reason why my clients couldn’t “just get over it” and we found the answer in the new research of the brain. Analysis was no longer the approach to healing trauma; rather new methodologies aimed at nervous system regulation were the key.
The Spirit Workshop begins with mindfulness exercises in support of people increasing their ability to be fully present with themselves, their sensations, and their sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Once this is achieved, it becomes the pathway to their participating in SE while learning basic natural horsemanship skill-sets with a horse of their choosing. Our entire focus is on supporting clients to “get out of their heads” and “thinking” and into their “felt-sense” while working with their horse. Buddy often says: “The horse gives you what you need, not necessarily what you want” and for our clients, it is the somatic experience of moving through these “stuck” places that is transformative.

Clients often experience what we call a “pendulation” or movement back and forth between activating senses, and calming senses; and are encouraged to stay in touch with these shifting sensations, versus “thinking.” So, we don’t ask “why?” or “what is that about?” or “what does that remind you of?” Rather, we ask questions like “where do you notice that sensation in your body?” and “what does it feel like?” It truly is “bottom up therapy” versus “top down.” And, as Peter Levine also shared: “When the body shifts, the mind takes on new meaning.” Once a client stops “thinking” and their ability to “track” sensations broadens, emotions often percolate up and we support them in “allowing them to flow versus brace against them.” What is consistently fascinating and endearing is that as the client gets more in touch and is congruent with what they are sensing and feeling, their horse seems to sense this and responds in quite astounding ways; ways that both Buddy and I have looked on in amazement, as at times, their horse appears to “nurture their partner’s soul” with their subtle connective responses.

My absolute favorite part happens toward the end of the workshop. By this time, most clients are more fully present in their bodies and “attuned” with their partnering horse. With skills-set in place we invite them to create a round-pen demonstration. They may do something as simple as have their horse walk a circle, trot a circle, yield his hind-quarters and then front-quarters, come to a stop and back up. The amazing part is that although bumpy at times, it is usually done with such fluidity of motion and connection it truly looks like you are witnessing a dance of shared grace. The client’s hands become the unspoken language, as pressure and release become the “please and thank you” with their horse. I cherish witnessing their final dance step; the one where the client and their horse “meet in the middle;” as a gentle hand makes contact with the more gentle and welcoming forehead; where softness is revealed and exchanged. When this occurs, there is this profound stillness that takes place; it is as if what is happening inside the round- pen in this intimate partnering expands to envelope all of us in this sacred space, where the sensation of true healing is felt by all. It’s a transformation back into what has always been there deep within; one’s true essence of who they really are. I have no doubt at all that the fostering of this “emergence of essence” actually comes from the soul of the horse.

One of our Spirit Workshop participants commented: “The workshop facilitators presented challenges and elicited emotions I may not have otherwise accessed. Without ever mounting a horse, I felt connected to them, myself, and nature in a way I hadn’t for some time. The horse represented struggles in my life and inspired me to stretch.

These horses and facilitators helped me connect to my higher self, providing the guidance and the healing I sought in an organic way.” Buddy and I often talk about how it truly feels like a privilege to be a small part of this jump-start of healing.

Collen DeRango is an equine therapist at The Meadows Wickenburg and a facilitator of the Spirit: A Somatic Equine Workshop. Combining The Meadows Model, Somatic Experiencing® (SE), mindfulness, and natural horsemanship, this cutting-edge workshop allows for a distinct healing experience. The program consists of experiential activities with horses addressing self-esteem, boundaries, honoring reality, wants and needs, emotional regulation, and spontaneity.
Equine Therapy is generally used during the middle and late phases of treatment, as well as in the Relapse Prevention phase. There is no horsemanship required to participate, as there is no riding involved. Following the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) methodologies, both therapists and clients can reach new heights of awareness and growth.
Equine Therapy is often noted as a highlight of the treatment program. To learn more about this effective and popular program, contact The Meadows at 800-244-4949 or visit www.themeadows.com.