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“Taking one breath after another with my horses–and you must breathe with them if you want to understand their rhythms and emotions–I can settle myself, become calm, take stock of my surroundings.”


“I have spent my life with horses, eventually becoming a horse trainer and riding instructor.  Horses were my true teachers so I tell my story through them.  They are why I stand and speak.  They are my touchstone and bridge to my own kind.  They help me heal myself and go into human relationships a little stronger. “

Excerpted from MY HORSES, MY HEALERS by Shelley Rosenberg

Shelley Rosenberg is a courageous and impassioned woman.  Wounded by the trauma of childhood abuses she was not broken.  Her relationship with horses over the course of her life helped her to bolster her own inner strength and eventually write her memoir, My Horses, My Healers, which explores horse-human bond, her personal intimate experience with horses, and how the bond between horse and human can create healing out of traumatic experience.  She has collaborated with Dr. Nancy Coyne, MD (whose interview was posted earlier this week) to create a workshop entitled “Horses as Healers” which incorporates mind/body techniques, yoga, guided visualization, and horse-human relational experiences to facilitate healing experiences in trauma survivors.

Shelley is an Epona Advanced Approved Instructor working out of Arizona ( at the Epona Center) and Maine in facilitating growth, healing, and wellness through the horse-human relationship.  I am always profoundly impacted by the universal elements of traumatic experience and healing catharsis.  Shelley references multiple times in the interview below the process of going from “surviving to thriving” which I also discuss in my website http://www.embodymentalhealth.com as my credo: “Life: Don’t just survive, thrive.”  I think it shows a like ambition in those who have healed from trauma and search for ways to help others find healing and wellness from their traumatic experience.  Shelley’s book is a story of strength, courage, and discovery through intimate experience and exploration of horses as healers.

I hope you take the time to look into her work with Nancy Coyne and her memoir which is beautifully written.  I am in admiration of her voice as a survivor of traumatic experience.  I believe strongly that the more survivors who have learned to thrive can speak out the more they can inspire others to work towards their own recovery and healing–and give courage to people who need it.  I thank Shelley, as a fellow survivor, for her courage in telling her story and taking the time to do so again on this blog.

Q:  Why did you decide to write out your traumatic experience and healing journey in your book “My Horses, My Healers”?  Did you have any trepidations or concerns about opening up so much of your inner journey in writing for others to see?  What did you hope would come out of telling your story?

I truly had only one reason to write my story, to help others use there voice. to give words to there story, and be deeply heard.

Q:  What do you think, at the root, is so healing about horses and the horse human relationship?  What for you was the cathartic element of your experience with horses?

Horses were my ears  to the little girl who heard “if you tell you will die”. They can listen, react, and go back to grazing. Something I was not able to do. How the horse knows by nature after a trauma peace move on, life is no longer in danger.

My cathartic experience as you ask was breaking my arm so I did not have to go to Grandpa’s house. My learning to use my voice was what set me free to move through the past and like the horses go back to a full life.

Q:  You describe your experience with horses as “self-healing”; what do you mean by that?  Do you feel “healed” from you traumatic experience?  What were the essential elements of your healing process?  What do you think got you to the place, emotionally, that you are today?

Horses mirror the authentic self, I was living a life from horses accident to horse accident. Each fall was a way to get out of the inner pain I was in. Each injury was worse then the next, until I got that I was the cause of these falls. I found one therapist after another until I found someone who deeply listened to the pain in my soul. I still am doing my own work I believe we are never done learning. It is my job as a healer to keep up on my own personal work.

Q:  What attracted you to horses as a child?  Why did you follow the equestrian path professionally?

My very best friend had horses, I have Joanne Clark to be thankful for leading me to them. As I started to learn more and more about horses, spending every minute I could with them.   I knew I wanted to be a horse professional at a very young age.

Q:  When did you begin to explore using your professional horsemanship capacities to help others heal from their emotional issues of trauma and the traumatic experience?

I think as a riding instructor we all listen to stories of the clients’ accidents. If we ask questions and offer our own truth we can help anyone. I am more careful now and work on deep issues with Dr. Nancy Coyne a trauma specialist. We work directly with the horses as co-facilitators.  Riding and ground work are incorporated in all of our workshops.

Q:  You have created a program called “Horses as Healers” at the Epona Center in Arizona.  What led to the creation of this program with your co-facilitator Nancy Coyne, MD?  What led you to create the program in the format you did–with the incorporation of creative arts, yoga, and other methods of complementary therapies?

We started this work first in a Horses As Healers workshop in Bath, Maine. I was working for the Epona Center so our next full workshop was at Apache Springs ranch. The creations propose was to give a safe space for the participants to be deeply heard. and given tools to help change the patterns they are in. To go from surviving to thriving, the arts and yoga and body work are all incorporated to move the process along in a new pathway for radical self care.

Q:  What kind of riding and horsemanship techniques have you implimented to facilitate a psychotherapeutic experience for participants in your group?

We do so many different mind body connections, like feeling the movement of the horse while mounted, reflective grooming, and connected round pen where four people go into the round pen with one horse. They must speak to each other before any movement takes place. Like asking the horse to walk they need to all agree to do this action before the person who they decide will ask the horse to move. So they ask if everything they do is okay before they move ahead. If someone’s arousal level goes up the group stops or time out, and they come together in the pen to speak the fear. Most of the time the horse will come in and listen to what is going on. Then they go back to what ever goal they set for themselves. The object is communication, and being heard.

Q:  How is it, as a dressage trained professional, to work in a mental health capacity with a psychiatrist?  How do you both balance your professional backgrounds and goals for clients (re: learning horsemanship skills and creating therapeutic experiences) to create a cohesive psychotherapeutic experience for your clients?

Dr. Nancy Coyne is the mental health professional, I am the trained horse professional, we must be open to what ever takes place with the clients. We have now been doing this work for four years and are very good at speaking our own truth in the moment. We respect each others decisions and always have the clients best interest and safety first.

Q: On your Epona website biographic information it discusses your work with “reflective riding”?  What is this technique and how is it therapeutically effective for clients?  What is “passive roundpenning” and how is that different from “active roundpenning”?  What are “Journey Rides”?

The reflective ride has evolved in many ways it can and usually is a profound experience. The rider reflects what is going while they are lead by a trained staff employee. If they are having an issue with a fall or a body sensation we can ask all kinds of questions to have them reflect on what happened frame by frame.

Passive round pen is a more private time the client has with the horse they choose alone in the pen. Active round pen is where we teach the client how to move the horse safely. The journey ride is a guided meditation on horseback. With a story I have created to fit the group.

Q:  What have you discovered in creating and implementing this program?  What did you expect?  What were the results?  What has surprised you?

I have discovered the voice is one of the tools to set us free from our well used pathways that have not been helping us move on. I have learned I have great joy in helping others. I wanted to help others speak and we have done this many, many times. The results  truly  take my breath away. People come now ready to do the work they came for. I am not surprised I am truly grateful for the gifts i have been given.

Q:  What do you envision in the future of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy and other Equine Assisted Activities?  What do you hope to see moving forward in your own practice and programming in the field?

I see the future being more guided by rules from EFFMA or NARAH. I hope people take this work as serious as it is. I am writing another book accessing your intuition I will be telling the stories of what has evolved in my own work with others.

Q:  What would you like to say to other trauma survivors struggling on their own journey of healing?  What would you like to say to other professionals looking to explore alternative ways to trauma and mental health treatment outside of traditional talk therapy?

To trauma survivors I hope they find someone to listen to them in a way they have there process deeply heard. Do not stop looking until you find this human. If you can find a therapist who has access and has worked with horses as healers.

To traditional talk therapists please take a step out of the office with a horse professional and try this very powerful work for yourself.

Q:  Any words of inspiration, wisdom, or anything else you would like to leave the readers with.

This is the way to help the clients move from surviving to thriving, the way of the horse.

Thank you for letting me speak.

Ive got a brand new pair of roller skates by Indy Charlie on flickr

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. 
 

Helen Keller

 

 

Having just returned from my viewing of “Whip It” with the amazingly endearing and engrossing Ellen Page as well as “riot grrl” inspiring portrayals of chicks that rock by powerhouse women in Hollywood like Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Eve and Kristin Wiig  I am feeling appropriately riotous.  I left wanting to do something bold and don some skates.  While the latter is unwise given bad ankles, bad balance, and all around equalibrium issues with as of yet undetermined origin the former feels like a healthy ambition.

 

I think we all should be inspired, on occassion, to do something bold, to be someone bold, and really shout to the world some truth of ourselves.  “Whip It” was an elbows out, skates on, face-your-fears-till-you’re-fearless depiction of someone forging their own path, finding their own truth, and doing it all to a rockin’ soundtrack.  How often I have thought how much easier it would be to be bold or empowered with a really amazing soundtrack blaring in the background.

 

It was the greatest infusion of filmic empowerment I had felt in a while.  I love that feeling of leaving a theatre feeling imbued with a sense of something palpable and translatable from the screen into my rapidly thumping heart and contemplating mind.  Perhaps it was a tinge of nostalgia for my alterna-punkish youth but I think it was also a sprinkling of something much more present tense.  The film was an all out, bruising to the bone reminder that you can be pushed down, punched out, and dropped on our face by life but our strengths are in bouncing back up, maybe throwing in an elbow of our own, and pushing forward to be the best of ourselves–courage despite fear.   And there is nothing like watching a woman literally throwing an elbow on screen, at least for me, to pump up the empowerment adrenaline. 

 

I was not quite sure what to do with this visceral motivation–somewhat torn between wanting to become a roller derby maven and create my own nonprofit I think I will settle somewhere in the middle for the moment, transcribing my internal invigoration via post as my own personal translation of empowerment.  As my method of “throwing elbows” (given aforementioned issues of balance and lack of phsyical skill) has always been literary in nature. 

 

And since I missed out on my Weekly List due to some technical difficulties by way of a busted computer adapter I think I will list about it with a bit of “Whip It” enthusiasm and some of my viewpoints on empowerment:

 

1) Be Bold.  Be Honest.  Be You.  These may seem like simple premises but I think, day-to-day, they can be the hardest to follow through on.  Being true to ourselves and honest about who we are both externally and internally is a life long journey but in that journey we should be able to find ways to be bold about who we are in any given moment.  Whether it be seeing “Whip It” by yourself on a Sunday just because you want to, writing into cyber oblivion because it feels necessary, or just saying how we really feel when our urge is to keep silent.  Being you in any given moment can be the boldest and most courageous thing anyone can do.

 

2)  Face Your Fears.  Whatever gives you chills or makes your stomach drop– stare it down.  Don’t let what frightens you rule you.  Now while I have not managed to do that in the arena of, say, cocroaches (yet) I actively try to push the limits of what I feel comfortable with and stretch for what might be possible right beyond my reach.  Stretch your reach.  Stop stagnation by grasping at something a little further than you think you can achieve–you might be surprised at just how far you are capable of going.  I have been, maybe more recently than ever before.  I hope I don’t stop living on the edge of the next seemingly unattainable dream–grasping at the air just a little bit further than I can see.

 

3)  Pull Yourself Up When You Fall.  So much of life is dealing with the unexpected and often unexpected blows.  Like Hellen Keller said above “Security is superstition.”  We can count on change and low points and failures but those things can be the foundation for something unexpectedly good.  The falls may change who we are and where we are headed but to be able to find the good, get back up, and throw elbows to make something out of what we have been given is real courage.  Being able to not just survive life but thrive and create something new and good. 

 

4)  (Once You’ve done #4) Help Someone Else Pull Themselves Up.  A crutial part of healing from our falls, recovering our souls and healing our aches from pain and trauma in our lives, is being able to hand some of that courage, skill, and the honesty of our own powerful story, to someone else who is struggling in their own ache.  I was discussing this very thing with the lovely and passionate Michele Rosenthal over at “Heal My PTSD” this weekend when (after finding out we live in close proximity to one another) we were able to meet up at a local Domestic Violence event.  Being able to give somebody hope and strength to pull themselves back up is just as important as being able to attain it for yourself–in my opinion–not just for the other person but for yourself. 

 

5)  Speak Out.  Speak Loud.  Be The Voice For SomeOne Who Can’t Speak For Themselves.  In an expanded follow through of #4 I think this step can be powerful for each of us and be a metamorphasis of all the prior steps into a holistic conclusion.  To be able not just to be our own journey to our own end, but to be able to move beyond ourselves to work for a greater good and a larger whole is something that is both personally fullfilling and an important contribution.  Not everyone can be their own voice, they may just not have the strength.  This could be advocating for a cause or population that brings passion to your heart or speaking against injustices in your midst or taking your own painful traumatic experiences and giving it up as representation for others that even pain can have a voice and falling is not the end of the story–teaching people that they can stand again, by example. 

 

 

In this last step I am only, thus far, a partial representative.  I am a huge advocate for PTSD treatment and am constantly trying to be a voice for those who are struggling in their own pain, but I have never yet used my story as the tool.

 

I believe in the importance (another issue I was discussing with Michele this weekend) of those who have survived and thrived in pain and trauma to come forth and stand strong for those who cannot yet do so, but at the same time I have never publically shared my story. 

 

Perhaps this is the next step of my journey and maybe in some strange confluence of events my wonderful discussion with a fellow survivor followed by a raucious “riot grrl” type movie helped to remind me that while the trauma therapist professional in me has important things to say about healing–the trauma survivor in me also has a voice that must be heard.

 

Female Boxing Champion 1926 on flickr

I do not believe in using women in combat, because females are too fierce.


Margaret Mead (a famous anthropologists and one of my first heroines as a child)

June 2020
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