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Healing through relationship

Self-help books are like car repair manuals: you can read them all day, but doing so doesn't fix a thing. (Lewis, Amini and Lannon, A General Theory of Love, p.177)

When my mother died, I inherited quite a few books. Lots of novels, some short stories, poetry and art books, and most of her work library (she was a psychotherapist). Amongst these was a book I remember her recommending, but that I never read while she was alive: an elegant little paperback called A General Theory of Love.*

A General Theory of Love was one of the early syntheses of what neuroscientists were discovering about how the brain and nervous system work, and the practice of psychotherapy. It was an attempt to explain (amongst other things) what exactly it is about therapy that helps us to heal and grow. The core insight is this: that our brains and nervous systems - and therefore our bodies and hearts - are not self-contained, but develop and function in relationship with other brains, bodies and hearts. We are wired for connection, and the absence of nourishing connections, especially in infancy and childhood, shapes the actual structure of our brain as well as our patterns of relationship (including how we relate to ourselves). What is more, it is impossible simply to think (or will) ourselves out of these patterns: we have to restructure our brain through sustained experience of a different kind of connection, in which we are deeply seen and known, can learn (mostly by osmosis) to regulate our emotions, and are able to revise our ingrained, largely unconscious, programming about what relationships should look and feel like.

Ideally, therapists offer this experience of healing through relationship to their clients. But many people struggle to trust another human being enough to allow a healing relationship to develop - and the more trauma we've experienced, the harder it can be. This can leave us trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle of isolation, anxiety and pain. (In passing, it's worth noting that our friends and family are often the last people who can help us change our old relational patterns, because they generally share them!) Working with horses, though, offers another way for people to experience the healing power of relationship - and over time, to rewire our brains so that we can begin to see, and move through, the world differently.

A healthy herd of horses is a web of relationships. Within that sustaining web, each herd member is seen and known, without words or masks. They learn how to do emotion in a way that promotes the wellbeing of the individual and the group, and they develop close and loving bonds. And when we enter the herd's territory with a willingness to heal and grow, we are invited to become part of that web, to weave ourselves into the relational bonds that hold it together, so that we can come back into healthy relationship with ourselves and others. For the horses, that's no big deal. It's what they do, because they understand that none of us - not them, not you and me - are separate, and that when one part of a community is hurting, the whole is hurting.

The process of healing is not always pretty, or comfortable. The passage that opens this post continues: "Working on a car means rolling up your sleeves and getting under the hood, and you have to be willing to get dirt on your hands and grease beneath your fingernails." Likewise, "overhauling emotional knowledge is no spectator sport: it demands the messy experience of yanking and tinkering that comes from a limbic [emotional] bond". You can't just read about it, and nor can you positive-think your way to a new way of being. You have to be willing to be actually, truthfully, and sometimes messily, in relationship, in this moment, for the magic to happen.

For happen it does. In fact "magic" happens so routinely when people come to horses with the intention of healing that I'm constantly revising my assumptions about just how deeply and subtly connected we all are. And even though our work can be messy, it is also, fundamentally, joyful. Here's Cherokee - the newest addition to our herd - overseeing a group debrief during Module 2 of this year's Healing Herd programme, having just participated in his first one-on-one session with a programme participant. Deep peace and contentment, great joy, and the occasional bout of wild laughter: this photo says a lot about why I love this work.

* Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 2001).

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