Recently a close friend asked me if I would be interested in participating in LEAP, a mental health initiative that stands for the Lowcountry Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy program. So as a middle-age, neurotic artist (writer) who suffers from bipolar disease, the scars of a damaged childhood and post-traumatic stress disorder related to my 12 years of military service, and who has always been given to constant introspection and unyielding self-analysis, I figured, why not?
Services available to veterans
Lowcountry veterans can access service in many ways:Veterans Crisis Linehttp://veteranscrisisline.netIf you need help right away, veterans and their loved ones should call 800-273-8255 and press 1 to talk to someone immediately. You also can chat online or send text messages to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day. Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Centerwww.charleston.va.gov, 888-878-6884Returning combat veterans have five years of eligibility for VA health care when they leave active duty, so it’s important for them to enroll as soon as they return home.S.C. Department of Veterans Affairswww.govoepp.state.sc.us/va, 803-734-0200U.S. Department of Veterans Affairswww.va.gov, 800-827-1000VA info for returning combat veterans:www.oefoif.va.govSign up for VA benefits online:www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits-portal/ebenefits.portalS.C. Department of Employmentwww.scworks.orgThey have employment specialists dedicated to helping veterans find jobs.
I’d never been in therapy before except for a limited time with Veterans Affairs. Give it a whirl, my friend said, and if you think it’s worth it, you can write something about it. So I did, and I do, and I am.
What is Veterans Day?
In World War I, an armistice (a temporary halt to fighting) between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It was Nov. 11, 1918, a date generally considered the war’s end.The following year, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as Armistice Day to honor WWI veterans. In 1938, it became a national holiday. In the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, Armistice Day became Veterans Day, a holiday that honors American veterans of all wars.U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
I signed on for 10 therapy sessions for, as I told my therapist during my initial interview, no specific reason. What harm can it do, I thought. Maybe rattle the old brain cage. Or perhaps out of curiosity, in the name of further self-discovery.
My sessions would involve a licensed therapist, a trained horse-minder, myself and the horse, of course — though not a talking horse. Surely there would be no Mr. Ed associated with this experience. Little did I suspect.
My 10 sessions took place at Bugby Farms on Wadmalaw Island. I had no idea what to expect, as well as no idea how a horse was going to get inside my psyche and help to solve my Gestalt dilemmas, as I had never heard of a horse with a Ph.D. But I kept an open mind.
I was told by a few folks only slightly more informed than myself that it had something to do with the idea (fact?) that horses, like many animals, cannot be deceived. They don’t care about your evasiveness. It’s not that they can see through your evasiveness, it’s that they can’t see your evasiveness at all. All they can see is you. The real you.
You may think you can snow your therapist, and maybe some people can and do, but you can’t snow a horse. Because they exist in a different place, on another plane. They are unencumbered by intellect, therefore, unfiltered and supremely intuitive. So I imagine that horses see us as our essential, emotional, primal, undisguisable selves.
Right or wrong, I was not disabused of this notion by my therapist, though frankly I’m no closer to understanding the process now than I was when I started, then finished. Suffice it to say that horses are prey animals. And when a big part of your life’s energies is devoted to staying off the predator’s lunch menu, you get very tuned in to other life forms. Like neurotic middle-age artists.
I was to begin my first formal session by choosing a horse, but before I could choose a horse, one chose me. A big — 17½ hands — ex-thoroughbred named Pi. An old and venerable giant with one blind eye, severe arthritis, and a noble suffering countenance, or so I projected from the wounded recesses of my own scarred history.
When I entered the barn for the first time, old Pi ambled up to the stable door, caressed the flesh on the back of my hand with his soft-as-velvet schnoz, kneaded the flesh of my knuckles with a deftly delicate series of tender bites, and refused to allow me to inspect any of the other candidates by ever so gently grabbing the shoulder of my shirt in his soft bite, and pulling me back to the sill of his stall when I attempted to walk away. And as corny, contrived and fairy-tale-folksy as that might sound, it happened.
I was soon to discover in subsequent sessions that such seemingly magical moments were to become the norm.
Equine therapy is talk therapy, but instead of lying on a couch, you do stuff with your horse while talking. You take your horse through little obstacle courses you build out of barrels, cones and rails, while talking. Or you bathe your horse, and comb and curry him while talking. And believe me, I can talk. Particularly about me.
As a self-absorbed writer of fiction, opinion and self-obsessed lay psychology, Me happens to be my favorite subject. And throughout the subsequent weeks of my therapy, I talked so much, and in such uninhibited and expansive terms about Me, that Pi was allowed to unfailingly display his seemingly metaphysical, dare I say, supernatural gift for punctuating my statements, questions and conclusions, with perfectly timed and measured remonstrations.
A shuffle here, a nod there, a sniffle, a whinny, or a shake of the tail or mane as required by my constant exposition, Pi seemed to vibe with me like the strings over the soundboard of a piano. He seemed to uniformly and seamlessly mirror the topography of my interior landscape like a keen-eyed mapmaker. It was a behavior that established itself early in our interaction and persisted throughout.
Allow me to make clear that there was never anything subtle or masked about these equine demonstrations of empathy. They did not require any nuanced or practiced skill to discern. None. It was almost without exception blatant, in-your-face, heartwarming, cornball-hokey stuff, like you’d see in a Disney movie. A preschooler could see it. And it kept on happening.
It was, in no uncertain terms, joyous. And I mean joyous. A term that I am not ordinarily given to using. Generally, I am the careful sort, with a wary and cautious nature, reluctant to allow anyone “in” except after a period of long, careful and cynical consideration. But after just two or three sessions with Pi, I had considered myself to have found a new friend of the most pre-eminent and conspicuous value. Noble, discerning, attuned. Attuned to me.
I very soon found myself looking forward to our weekly sessions together as a child looks forward to a birthday party. Apparently, I had discovered anew that thing that had become so foreign and so painfully and conspicuously absent in my life: Joy. I had rediscovered joy.
All of LEAP’s horses are as tame and as manageable as kittens, and as personable as pups. As you open up more and more to your therapist and to your equine therapeutic partner, you may find yourself, as I did, becoming more and more conscious of a sense of uninhibited communication and nonrational fealty to your four-legged facilitator in self-discovery, healing or what have you.
Personally, by the end of my second full session, the interaction between myself and old Pi had became so serendipitously delightful and seemingly scripted, that I started to wonder if indeed I might be the subject of some hidden camera reality show. I mean, was this horse really reading me as effortlessly and accurately as it seemed?
It was a question I came to ask my therapist and my handler on more than one occasion. In return, I would receive a pair of bemused smiles and shrugs — the simple mundane acknowledgement that there’s nothing at all unusual about any of this, it happens all the time, that’s why we do it. That’s what this type of therapeutic approach is all about.
And so one day during an advanced session, after waxing long, elegantly and tortured about my manifold complexes, came my breakthrough. Which involved learning or discovering nothing new. After decades of careful lay study and informed introspection, I knew everything I needed to know going into the whole process, and didn’t expect to learn anything in addition to what I already knew, and never did. That wasn’t what I was there for, I later concluded.
No, I just stopped thinking about it all, and finally started feeling about it. Really feeling about it, in a stark, naked, thundering-yet-blessed lowering of the weight of 51/2 decades of repression and masking. It was quite a moment. My breakthrough. A half a box of Kleenex breakthrough. And golly it felt good.
And through it all, old Pi stood there like a pillar of compassion and support. And as I sobbed, right on cue (as always) he bent low, and rubbed his great flat bony monument of a head against my heaving chest and shoulder. To comfort me. And to soothe my pain. Which was simply what I’d come to expect.
So during our 10th and last session, I was presented with a large piece of construction paper, a bag full of water soluble paints, and asked to paint a symbolic picture of the future I wished to embark upon. Pi was standing right there, so I painted him. Painted a picture of a tall, strong, noble and wise soul. Without guile, without cunning, artifice, motive or deceit. Just a friend. A companion on my road to healing. One who did not conspire to share in the giving of a gift, but did so by way of his simple transcendent presence. And that was almost all it took.
Lowcountry Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy treats those whose needs are not being met well in traditional therapeutic settings, including veterans and others who have suffered traumas.LEAP typically helps abused, neglected and troubled kids and adults, including veterans, who have emotional traumas or mental health problems. “We’re standing ready and wanting to do more work with veterans and their families,” Executive Director Kathleen Broughan said. Horses are very sensitive animals that pick up on small and large cues from people, Broughan said. Therefore, LEAP is built around interactions with horses and learning from the feedback they provide.The horse, as a sort of equine co-therapist, helps patients discover effective ways of dealing with others and overcoming their challenges.“Many individuals, for a variety of reasons, don’t do well in traditional office therapy. But being in a beautiful outdoor setting with horses is helpful when dealing with their experiences and issues,” said Broughan, a clinical and sport psychologist and avid horsewoman.Held at locations on Wadmalaw Island, Huger and Summerville,sessions involve a therapeutic team, including a licensed mental health professional, a horse professional and one or more horses. Not to be confused with therapeutic riding programs. LEAP doesn’t involve riding or teach horsemanship or horse care. Patients remain on the ground, engaged in tasks with horses that are designed to address dysfunctional patterns of behavior in patients’ day-to-day lives.“This is helpful especially for returning vets who have developed a way of survival, and that behavior helped them to survive in combat,” Broughan said. “But at home, that behavior might get in the way of relationships with their families, children and bosses. We help them understand the dynamic between themselves and others.”The nonprofit LEAP will hold its annual fundraiser, Art & Oysters, 3-6 p.m. Dec. 9 at A.W. Shuck’s, 70 State St., Charleston. A portion of the proceeds will benefit veterans and their families. For more information, go to www.leapinsc.org, call 723-0659 or email LEAPinSC@comcast.net.