Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy is a psychology practice that integrates screened and certified animals into its profession of helping people. At Dreamcatcher, we conduct both animal assisted therapy (AAT) and equine facilitated counselling (EFC) and learning (EAL).
Something happened in a session here and I used it as an example of transference / countertransference (t/c) in a team training. Then I thought: “I should write an article about this.” When I sat down to write the article, it occurred to me that it may not have been t/c that happened in the session. I had to stop and think about it. I wondered: “If it wasn’t c/t, was it projection?” As it is something that happens often in sessions and is one of the reasons we work with animals in practice, I think it is worth exploring. So here is what happened.
We were asked to assist a young girl to develop her emotional awareness and to learn to communicate more effectively. Her parents requested that she go into our skill building program rather than be enrolled in our counselling program. The difference is that in skill building, we do not do counselling, we do not process traumatic events and we do not help people to recover from their losses or process their grief. In skill building, we help people learn to understand their feelings, to build awareness of the impact of their behavior on other people, to develop healthy and safe boundaries and overall, to learn about themselves while establishing functional patterns for navigating their social relationships.
The girl was attending one of her first equine-assisted sessions with our skill building interventionist. They were working one-on-one and had included our horse Echo. When the girl, who we will call Annica, led Echo into the barn with her interventionist, who we will call Marla, Echo appeared to be quiet, calm, cooperative and willing to spend time with Annica and Marla. He stood solidly on four feet with his head down, eyes and ears relaxed and almost on the verge of what looked like a nap.
Marla, standing on one side of Echo, handed a brush over to Annica who was on the other side of him. Annica began brushing the horse while Marla began to check in on how Annica’s week had been. Suddenly, Echo began to move his feet, his head went high and his eyes were wide. Marla knew Echo well and she quickly took control of the situation so that all three of them could remain safe. Annica had stopped brushing and was now standing up against the fence, her eyes large and brimming with tears. Marla checked in with herself: “What was that? Was there a noise? A movement? Is it me? Am I feeling uneasy or emotional?” Echo was a sensitive horse and sometimes he was very responsive to subtle changes in his environment, including shifts in emotion of the people around him. “Nope.” Marla thought: “It’s not me and I didn’t notice anything happening in here or outside that could have triggered Echo’s response.” She looked over at Annica, who was now squatted down against the fence, curling into what looked like a small human ball. She went to her and said: “Annica. Are you ok? Did something happen?” Annica then told Marla about a very bad thing that happened to her many years ago. Something that was going to require counselling and a transfer to the other program with a skilled therapist.
So what happened with Echo? Why did he suddenly startle and become anxious? According to Annica, brushing Echo made her remember the very unsettling event she had survived and while she felt herself becoming ‘upset,’ Echo started to move. Is it possible that Echo was reacting to Annica’s feelings? Was he sensing her emotional distress? Or did he notice a shift in her posture? Did she change the way she was brushing him which made him uncomfortable? The answer is: “I don’t know” but I do know that something happened that he noticed and it is a great coincidence that it happened at the exact same time that Annica was becoming emotionally dysregulated.
When this happens in EFC, it has been referred to by some authors as a form of biofeedback that is being provided to the client by the animal. What this means is that the animal displays concrete and visible behaviors in response to the client’s invisible emotions, or changes in their physiology, that they may or may not be aware of and that the interventionist is not aware of because the client does not show obvious changes in their state or disclose these feelings. Therapists and interventionists skilled in working with animals believe this happens often and claim that it is one of the most powerful aspects of including animals in the work of helping people.
By definition, biofeedback is the technique of using visual or auditory feedback from electronic instruments to gain control over involuntary bodily functions such as blood flow, blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature, muscle tension and brain activity. When biofeedback was first introduced, it was referred to as ‘a real-time physiological mirror’ (Sattar & Valdiya, 2017).
So, in EFC, when people refer to the response of an animal to someone’s emotions or physiological shifts as “biofeedback,” they are referring to the animal as a biofeedback mechanism. When the animal displays a behavioral reaction, appears to escalate emotionally or becomes seemingly ‘unsettled,’ the interventionist checks in to this moment with herself to determine if she is feeling anything unsettling and discerns whether there is something in the environment that could have caused the ‘shift’ in the animal’s internal states. If neither of these are possible causes, she then checks in with the client to determine if the animal is possibly reacting to the client’s physiological state, hence acting as a biofeedback device.
Is this what was happening with Echo and Annica? He detected a change in her emotional state and so he mirrored it back to her? According to Wikipedia, “mirroring is the subconscious replication of another person's nonverbal signals.” From neuroscientific research, we know that all humans and animals (including horses) have “mirror neurons” and in the human experience, these cause us to feel sad when we see someone cry, embarrassed for those who are humiliated and happy when others are smiling or laughing. This is referred to as Resonance (Sheade, 2016) and as Limbic Resonance by Lewis, et al, 2001 which refers to the emotional connection formed through relational experiences between beings. So, was Echo resonating with Annica’s physiology? Going back to my first thought, is this a form of transference / countertransference that was happening between Annica and Echo? And is this what happens when we experience countertransference in session? When we become agitated or emotionally dysregulated or behave or think differently in response to something our client is saying or doing, we have come to know this as “countertransference” in session but is it because our mirror neurons are firing and causing our reactions?
Some of the writing I found claimed that horses have “millions” of mirror neurons, far more than humans, dogs or cats and that is why they are so adept at “reading our emotions” and responding to them. I couldn’t find the scientific evidence to support this, although it sounds cool. As horses are prey animals with almost 360-degree vision, they are acutely adept at reading changes in their environment and it could be that Echo was responding to Annica’s postural changes or breathing as she recalled her traumatic events.
I think regardless of how he did it, it appeared that Echo picked up on Annica’s distress far before Marla did. As I come to the end of my pondering, I conclude that it, in fact, is countertransference as by definition, countertransference happens when the therapist has unusual feelings or behaviors in response to the client’s verbalizations or behaviors (Schwartz, 2019). In this case, Echo, the co-counsellor in the session, demonstrated his own behavioral reactions (possibly caused by his emotional dysregulation) that may have been in response to Annica’s non-verbal emotional dissonance, demonstrating a type of countertransference in the true fashion of a biofeedback mechanism and possibly through his mirror neurons!
I look forward to your thoughts!