Rhythmic Riding is an equine based therapeutic approach that is one part of the Trauma Focussed Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP) established by Tim & Bettina Jobe from Natural Lifemanship. In short “TF-EAP utilizes the rhythmic, patterned, repetitive, bilateral movement inherent in riding a horse to increase and reorganize the connections in the brain, thereby increasing the brain’s ability for emotion and impulse control. The horse is able to provide the rhythm required to effectively heal the traumatized brain until the client is able to independently provide that rhythm. In effect, clients passively learn to self-regulate through the use of the rhythmic, patterned, repetitive movement of the horse.” Spirit Reins Website.
Music is often incorporated into the mounted work allowing the horse and rider to move in time to and with the rhythm of the music, again requiring and providing a medium to scaffold regulation and connection between the rider and horse.
I had the opportunity to watch a Rhythmic Riding session at Cal Farley’s. The session observed was with a group of adolescent girls who had been engaged in TF-EAP work for the whole school year. As the session I observed was the last for this group for the school year, the focus of the group was less on riding to the rhythm but rather the creation of a mindful connection between rider and horse.
Each participant had their own horse with whom they had been working the whole year, hence I was observing well established rider/horse relationships. In the spirit of a mindful connection with the animal, the girls rode bareback and the session commenced with a mounted meditation to regulate and ground participants. Then cue music and the riders and horses were left to regulate and re-organise neural brain networks via the riding or horseback activity. Participants chose to either ride to the rhythm, lie across, over or back on their horse, or even attempt to stand on the back of the horse. Clinical and Equine Intervention staff observe, comment and process experiences with participants as regulatory and relational successes and difficulties between horse and rider emerge.
Now as I said, this group had been active for a full school year – so the girls, in most cases, had established enough self regulatory capacity that the rhythm provided by the horse merely provided a value add. This was not the case for all participants however. Fascinating for me was the experience of being witness to one young woman who arrived to the group clearly dysregulated – slamming the car door, storming past those of us milling about and stomping into the yard to collect her horse. Naturally the process of getting her horse was complicated by her emotional presentation, her horse on seeing and sensing her turned and moved away from her.
Despite eventually haltering her horse and mounting him bareback, it was obvious the connection between the two was tenuous, the horses ears were often back, his eyes looked a little wild and big and his rider was really struggling to control him. The mental health clinician in the group reflected to this young woman what she was observing, however this girl’s dysregulation was such that she wasn’t in the thinking and hearing part of her brain – instead she explained the relationship with the horse away as the result of her not liking or being able to ride as well bareback.
The session was a real struggle for this lass, while the other participants were riding in time to the rhythm, clearly demonstrating their self regulation and ability to connect with and trust their horse, she just couldn’t get the connection. In fact watching on I could just tell that the horse was waiting for the right moment to assist her off his back.
That moment came not long after the session commenced. Instead of focussing on herself and taking care of her own emotions, the participant, watching what others were doing and becoming increasingly frustrated at her inability to manage herself and her ride, decided to try and throw her leg over so as to ride the horse side on. Sensing the movement in balance, the horse took quick action and dispensed of her from his back. From there the session quickly took a turn for worse and despite the attempts of very skilled clinical and equine support staff, she was unable to remount the horse or develop insight into her emotional state and it’s impact on the situation at hand.
In hindsight, which is always 20-20, maybe on arrival staff could have suggested that today wasn’t the day to participate, but then who knows, it could have gone the other way, she could have got on the back of that majestic animal and the rhythm and movement of the horse could have been enough to start to regulate her and afford her success in the experience. It’s a tough call and it just highlighted to me the absolute importance of the attuned relationship that knows and gets the young person so as to be better placed to make that call. Unfortunately for this young woman that key relationship wasn’t present that day.
While this is a reflection of a challenging Rhythmic Riding session – it was clear to me the value of such activity and from my experience on horseback previously discussed I can see how this activity provides the necessary patterned, repetitive and rhythmic activity for enhanced regulation.