Corralling children’s grief
Horses help clients move forward through the stages of grief
Sometimes, it takes a different environment than a counselor’s ear and a box of tissues to make progress in processing grief.
For the most vulnerable people hurting from losing a loved one, having a sentient beast to help them negotiate the path to healing can make all the difference.
Last year, HopeWest’s equine therapy program helped 41 children who experienced a loss. This relatively new type of therapy that has gained popularity in the past decade involves using horses to help clients move forward in the stages of grief.
The horses at Joe Bremer’s farm came to the gate when the girls arrived at their equine therapy session last week. They’ve been coming here almost every week since September, and named the horses Coffee, Caramel, Vanilla and S’mores.
Therapy with horses can help give children a voice, helping them to identify their feelings and move forward past the barriers that grief has erected in their lives, said Caroline Coles, a HopeWest volunteer certified in equine therapy who has practiced it for six years.
The horses don’t judge them. They accept that the children are leading them and that they’re in charge. Interacting with the large beasts can help kids gain a sense of control over their lives, actions and feelings when something so horrible and out of their control has rocked their world.
The girls started their session by checking in with how they were doing, and then Coles asked them to notice the fly masks the horses were wearing. They talked about how sometimes people wear masks, too, to hide their emotions.
“Sometimes you pretend you’re having fun but you’re really, really sad,” one of the girls said.
This is a safe place for them, a place where everyone understands what they’re going through. It feels good to not have secrets here.
“We all have lost a dad and we all kinda know how it feels,” said Mia Contreras, 9.
As the girls were talking about wearing emotional masks, Vanilla playfully reached across the fence and removed Coffee’s mask. The girls talked about how maybe the horse was trying to tell them that wearing a mask wasn’t a good thing.
The powerful thing that happens here is that the horses give children the ability to talk about their feelings in a non-threatening environment.
HopeWest uses the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association’s program for grief therapy, which does all the work on the ground, without the clients actually riding the horses.
Instead, clients work directly with the horses, eye to eye, which helps them observe the horse’s behavior and relate to it. With the children, they can observe how the horses are acting and name those behaviors and feelings, instead of keeping those feelings inside.
Coles said her role is mostly to keep everyone safe and not say much, aside from guiding the children in their observations and helping them to name the emotions that they’re seeing in the horses.
“The beauty of the horses is that they’re the mirror and they project what the kids are feeling,” she said. “It’s all projection-based.”
Mia is here with her younger sister, Lyza, because their father died about 1½ years ago. Like other kids who lose their parents, they’ve had a lot of changes since his death. The reality is that children often deal with moving homes, moving schools, having to leave friends and support systems behind when they’ve already lost a mom or dad, and it leaves them with a sense that they’ve lost all control in their lives.
Another situation counselors deal with when children are grieving when they’ve lost family members is a sense from the surviving child that they somehow are responsible for others’ feelings and they have to act a certain way because it’s expected.
Sometimes it feels like they need to try to help make others happy or act like everything is OK, when it’s not.
Seven-year-old Lyza said she’s learned by working with horses that she can’t control other people’s feelings.
“Sometimes if other people are mad, just let them be mad,” she said.
“It’s not good for you to keep your feelings inside,” added Mia.
The volunteers in the program have seen kids whisper secrets in the horses’ ears and cry in their manes, among other amazing things.
Volunteer Kathy Hanson said she has noticed that kids will gravitate toward the horse they identify with emotionally. The loners will choose a horse that sticks to itself, and the ornery kids will choose the spirited horses.
Sometimes, the horses seem to sense what a child needs at that moment.
“A kid will say, ‘I don’t have any friends,’ and a horse will walk up and nudge them,” Hanson said.
On another occasion, a quiet girl who had recently experienced a loss was standing in an arena with sand on the ground, and was silently making a pattern with her shoes in the sand.
She stamped out a lotus flower in the sand, and then stepped away. A horse that had been standing behind her walked up to the flower.
“It looked at the flower and then added a stem with its hoof,” Hanson said.
Three weeks earlier, the girls buried a rock that represented grief in the corral; a horse had been carrying around the rock with other emotions in a saddlebag.
“They decided they didn’t want to completely bury it, because it would take all the memories, too,” Coles said.
In this session, Coffee reached through the corral fence to nibble weeds in the pasture.
The girls decided the horse was reaching for freedom, which was the pasture on the other side of the fence. Coffee got riled up and tore around the corral, bucking and kicking.
“He’s the king of anger!” the girls shouted, going into the pasture and running around.
Though the casual observer might assume they were just playing, their conversation was deep.
“We’re in happiness!” they yelled.
And when they came back to the fence, Coles asked them if it was OK to come back to anger and grief, and return to happiness.
“Yeah!” they yelled, running around the field of happiness again. One stayed on the fence between grief and anger and happiness, and decided it was OK to bridge both worlds sometimes.
Though it might seem like the girls are just playing, they’re working through some of their issues as they groom the horses, observe the animals’ behavior and interact with each other.
This group therapy taking place in the arena can result in faster breakthroughs than in a traditional counseling session, said Brittni Turner, the Hope-West counselor who took on the program this fall.
At the end of the session, the girls gathered on the hay bales where they started their session to discuss how they could escape the heaviness of grief, even if they didn’t have the horses with them.
“What gives you freedom from your grief when you’re not here?” Turner asked.
“School is freedom,” one said.
“Coloring is freedom,” another said.
“Playing outside,” another said.
“We’re freedom,” said Mia, looking at her younger sister. “We have each other.”