Published in Validity Magazine April 2013
The Ranch sprawls across 2,500 vast, rolling acres in Hickman County, where horses and cattle graze, the clear Piney River runs and nature abounds with wide sunsets, wildlife, green pastures and oak trees. A two-story, Colonial building stands at the heart of the homestead along with a large barn and the resident horses. This is more than just nature’s bounty; this is “a path to hope and healing.”
The Ranch is a recovery center providing treatment for trauma, drug and alcohol, eating disorder, behavioral addictions and more that have helped clients from all over the country. One program, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), is a powerful form of experiential therapy and it is here they discover healing through the horse led by one of the areas leading equine assisted psychotherapists, Dede Beasley, LPC.
Beasley is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Riding Instructor through Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) and a Certified Equine Interactive Professional (CEIP). Credentials aside, it is in her thirty years of private practice and lifetime with horses that the relevance of horses helping people began to show up on it’s own. “Therapy would show up in the riding lessons, and in my private practice we went from the office to the barn,” says Beasley.
On this particular day, The Ranch was hosting their Family of Origin Weekend where family members came in to join those in the program. “All addictions are a family disease, it affects everyone. The family gets to work it out, their contribution to the problem and their contribution to the recovery,” says Beasley.
Beasley’s portion of the weekend focuses on relationship theory and working with committed partners and married couples. “This is teaching them how to see a relationship in all its parts as individuals and within a ‘coupleship.’ Working with the horses, they see who they are in the relationship, what they want, what the other one needs.”
Her sessions include a horse handler who must be familiar with the horses, the processes, and therapeutic content. Today they select and bring in three equine partners. Sonny is a small Quarter Horse, attentive to his best pal Albert the donkey who watches from the next paddock. Pepper Jack is flea-bitten gray and quiet natured and Ranger stands with a big build and equally big heart. They are different horses with different histories who possess not only the ground manners required for this work, but their own personality and contribution to each client experience. They are the partners who will give the three couples participating today a new dynamic in their relationship counseling. In her sessions Beasley will cover safety, then have the clients groom and lead the horse before they go into the arena where obstacles are set up.
Dede can recognize who feels safe or not and their relationship with the other partner while grooming the horse. “I do a lot of observation, the body language of the client affects the experience with the horse. All the things that can happen in their relationship shows up in the handling and the discussion of being with this animal. They aren’t just horses, sometimes they’re seen as the most perfect or beautiful part or the most scariest or unnecessary part. That creates challenges or possibilities.” She adds, “In working with the horse, it brings up embodied issues versus thinking you’re way out of it.”
Dede gives an example from of a previous couple’s session: “One made the statement, ‘I thought after all these years you should know,’ instead of communicating what they wanted. They project that onto the horse as well, as if they should know what they want so the client doesn’t engage as much. The horse teaches them a level of engagement is necessary.”
“What we come up with gives them the tools to go home with and another way to go about communication issues; to turn complaints into requests, help distinguish who has a responsibility to deal with what and what is the ‘coupleship’ responsibility,” says Beasley. For these couples, a non-verbal experience turned into discoveries of each other and verbal expression of needs.
A memorable breakthrough Beasely witnessed occurred with Red, another Ranch equine partner. “One piece of work where I experienced such grace was with a woman who just stood there with the horse, there was just something in the air; it was spiritual and sacred. I knew she was filling up with something and what Red was doing was being a channel. He wasn’t just a horse standing in the hallway of the barn; he brought something because of that one person that day. They were engaged in touching, he gave her horse hugs and never left her. He was helping her to build attunement and she was getting healing. It goes real deep, to a loss of self, since early childhood, learning to be safe in her own body, instead of shame. It’s what he new, there’s something about the purity of it and when the horse attunes to you.“ In clinical terms, attunement first occurs with an infant and their caregiver establishing the ability to recognize and regulate emotions, as well as attachment where they learn to form a secure relationship. This horse was filling a void.
Addressing one diagnosis often times will also reveal trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. “Trauma creates a space of not responding to their environment or how they respond goes back to old patterns from a helpless place, the fight or flight which turns into substance and behavioral addictions. The horse being big and being separate brings up the wish for unmet needs like nurturing or fear of pain and danger, being hurt, being left. We just want to sit and let all that happen. Different people respond in different ways. It has to do with who is responsible for what in relationships and boundaries go with that.”
Dede herself spent earlier years in recovery and found refuge from her own farm and horses. She developed an aptitude for recognizing and facilitating the therapeutic moment between human and horse that translates to self-discovery, healing and well-being. Dede states, “I’m about reconnecting the dots and giving new meaning to their place in the world.”
Photos By Anthony Scarlati Photography