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Clinical Wisdom from Horse Training?

Great Lakes Psychology Group
Harper West, MA, LLP
Harper West, MA, LLP

Harper West is a Master’s level Limited Licensed Psychologist. Read Full Bio

Oddly enough, one of the most important pearls of psychotherapy wisdom I learned is actually a saying taken from horse training. 

Even if you’ve never trained a horse, bear with me as we explore this scenario. Imagine that you are entering a round, fenced corral with a horse running loose inside. You are a stranger to the horse and it is skittish. Your task is to put a saddle on that horse quickly and efficiently. What do you do? 

Some people might walk directly at the horse with the saddle, and may even try to trap the horse against the fence. (Good luck in a round corral!) This generally will make the horse more fearful and skittish and it may bolt. You now have a distrustful horse and will probably spend a long time getting it calmed down and able to trust you. You might chase that horse around that corral all day.

Here’s where the saying comes in. Wise horse trainers say: “If you act as if you have 15 minutes, it will take all day. If you act as if you have all day, it will take 15 minutes.” 

This saying speaks to the notion that a horse feels a trainer’s rushed and pressured approach as threatening and may react with fear and “flight,” since that is the horse’s primary survival tool. A calm, measured, and deliberate trainer reads the horse’s emotional state and patiently waits for it to settle. Only then do they approach very slowly, knowing that a sudden move will spook the horse and the process will have to start all over. A good trainer might even put the saddle down, stand on the opposite side of the corral acting disinterested, and wait for the horse to come investigate on its own. 

I find this saying is a good rule for many human situations, especially psychotherapy. A clinician who is too goal focused and intent on moving a client forward may inadvertently create distress and push the client into resistance or may even drive a client out of therapy. 

Some styles of therapy may focus on implementing changes in thought and action without sufficient exploration of the emotional blocks that are keeping a client stuck. A clinician who fails to attune to and understand a client’s emotional motivations may make therapy look like a clinician figuratively chasing a client around trying to force change that does not feel comfortable to the client. 

Acting as if you have only “15 minutes” can create a range of unproductive therapeutic situations, such as these: 

  • A preoccupied clinician may fail to read a client’s mental state accurately, leading to a client feeling that the therapist is uncaring and lacking in understanding. 
  • Asking too many probing questions or pushing for accountability too soon before an alliance is built can provoke shame and cause a client to become more self-blaming, guarded, or defensively angry. 
  • Urging behavioral changes before you understand the client’s emotional motivations may be perceived as authoritarian and directive, triggering childhood trauma memories. The client may become passive and helpless or angry and actively resistant.
  • Urging behavioral changes that the client is not ready to attempt leads to subconscious non-compliance, resulting in the client feeling inadequate and guilty. 

The client, just like a skittish horse, must experience a calm and accepting clinician before they can feel safe enough to trust the guidance being offered. Clients with childhood trauma, attachment insecurity, and high levels of anxiety are often highly empathic and attuned to the emotional states of those around them. They will quickly sense a clinician who is impatient or judgmental. 

Engaging with Patience During Child Therapy Interventions

This horse training expression especially applies when working with children. I recall one intake assessment where the mother insisted on bringing the child to the office despite my request that parents only attend the first session. The little girl was so anxious she did not want to sit in the waiting room by herself, so I reluctantly let her into my office with the mother. I could readily identify that the child was shy and very uncomfortable. She made no eye contact and was frozen in her chair. Yet the mother began insisting that the child talk to me: “It’s good to talk about your feelings. You need to let it out. You should tell Ms. West how you feel about this incident.”  Not surprisingly, the child became increasingly anxious and withdrawn. Meeting a new therapist was already an upsetting situation and while the mother had very good intentions she was not attuning to her child’s emotional state. Most parents have never had experience with child therapy, so may believe it is exactly like adult talk therapy and that the child will somehow be helped if they “express their feelings.” Parents may need some education on the idea that the therapeutic relationship is a major key to successful child therapy, yet building trust is less likely to happen when the clinician (or parent) rushes the process. Having a child immediately discuss a traumatic event within minutes of meeting a new therapist is like rushing to saddle a horse you’ve just met. 

Acting as if you have all day is essential in ongoing child therapy. This is the magic of play therapy; you can build safety through the language of play. Child therapy should always begin with no intention of “getting the child to talk”. Converse about anything but the reason they are in therapy, focusing on interacting with humor and authenticity to build the relationship first. 

Therapy Mindset: Slow Down to Go Fast

Whether it is child, adult, or couples therapy, consider if you are the rushed trainer forcing the horse, creating anxiety and delaying the process, or the patient trainer waiting for the horse to feel safe enough so that it can be easily guided in the right direction.

Harper West, MA, LLP

Harper West, MA, LLP

Read Full Bio

Harper West, MA, LLP, is a psychotherapist in Clarkston, Michigan. Harper serves on the Michigan Board of Psychology. She is certified in various forms of mindfulness and compassion-based therapies and has completed advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. She has written and contributed to award-winning books, has edited and written for professional journals, and has spoken at professional conferences.

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