By Benjamin Fry
Last week I went to Arizona to spend a week on a ranch with a somatic therapist and a horse whisperer. Since I don’t really like horses and have not been on one for 30 years, this was somewhat of a leap of faith.
The workshop was led by Colleen Derango, the former head of Mellody House (which has now closed). She was partnered by Buddy Uldrikson, one of America’s most celebrated horsemen. She has been developing this work with Buddy over the last five years and has now synthesized something quite remarkable.
Key principles of working with the nervous system are regulation and capacity. Regulation is the goal of this work, and implies an ability to smoothly react appropriately (regulated) to external threat, and then to unwind from that reaction completely. We learn regulation as infants from our larger caregivers, who provide extra capacity (or holding) for our tiny, dysregulated systems. This is how we use good attachment to create good mental health.
This work is not done in the brain, it is done in the body. Specifically it seems to be done by the vagus nerve, which apparently has more neuronal connections to the gut than there are in the brain. The horse has the largest vagus nerve of any land mammal, and therefore it represents a huge capacitor for regulating (or metabolizing) our own nervous systems; just like a mother to an infant.
So why the horse whisperer?
We are not infants. Most of us who have lost our regulation along the way (usually through a combination of poor attachments and a series of over-stressful events) have lost the ability to become attuned to another mammal, and thereby to settle our own nervous system by the power of connection (good attachment). We see people relearning this skill in groups. With the right (safe enough) set up, we can start to settle, trust and to connect again. The 12-step groups are usually a good example of this, and the regulation that it sets up on the inside reduces the need to get regulated from the outside by chemicals. We see the same effect in our trauma reduction groups at Khiron House.
Moving this on to horses, we need to learn a new trick if we are to put this into practice in what they call the ‘round pen’, a training area for learning to work with a horse without riding one. Buddy ostensibly taught us how to handle a horse, but in doing so asked us to connect with the horse, and to do that, crucially, we had to connect to our own somatic selves first. So in working with horsemanship skills, we were doing, as he had done all of his life, the first basic work of somatic therapy, which is to slow down, sense into ourselves and try to connect with the other from a new more embodied place. Cowboys, I have noticed, don’t rush. They are in the moment, otherwise they can’t work with the animals which are always in the moment too.
Ok but where is the therapy?
Colleen and Buddy have worked on creating a seamless partnership which allows a fluid transition from this initial connection with self and with the horse to a truly powerful somatic therapy. Colleen would take over to guide us into some processing with the horse acting as our capacitor. This allowed me to reach places, safely and organically, that might have been hard to access without such robust support.
The net result of the whole experience was a settling of my nervous system to a state of deep relaxation. I was able to process some of my remaining trauma, resource myself with their lovely horses, relax in the sunshine in the great containing capacitor of the desert, and to be in a group of people who were really working their own stuff, a very safe place to be.
Next week I will take you further into that internal journey and open up for you my own intimate experience of trauma healing and somatic resourcing, as gifted to me by Colleen and Buddy out in the simple environment of a ranch in the Sonora high desert.
Visit their website for more details.
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