A Day for Teens with Horses at Wings of Hope Camp PEGASUS Grief Camp
A Day for Pegasus
The campfire around which we will soon gather is just starting to really get going, and the smoke and smell and warmth of burning wood contrasts with the wet, cold grass. Just a tad of frost from last night is glistening as the sun continues to rise. It’s a beautiful fall morning, and we are grateful for the bright sun on this, a most important day. Today is a day for Pegasus Grief Camp.
The horses seem ready, munching some hay, with steam coming out of their nostrils as they chew. Winter is a few months away, but for the teens coming to today’s Grief Camp, the darkness and coldness of their rough journey sometimes makes it seem like winter lasts all year and might never end.
The bus pulls in the driveway, and eleven or so teens of various sizes and shapes pile off the bus. Some are country kids, used to farm animals around daily. Some have rarely, if ever, been to a farm. All of them are united by membership in a club none of them wanted to join. Each has lost at least one significant person in their life, usually an immediate family member, but often also a close friend, to death.
Visiting the school, or individual family, and getting the necessary liability paperwork and permission slips, has made me aware of one thing almost instantly. Grief in these kids’ lives is complicated. And common. It is not uncommon for participants, some as young as 13 or 14, to have already lost several close family members to death. It’s sometimes from the natural causes of old age, but more often from accident, disease, addictions, and other traumatic losses.
Many Kinds of Loss
There are quite often additional family challenges. Frequent moves. Parental incarceration. Financial difficulties. The books on bereavement call this ”Complicated Mourning”, but that term is too clinical to do the kids’ stories justice. They jump off the bus– some loud, some reserved; most looking just a bit scared. I am fairly certain that at least once on the ride over each wondered just what they had gotten themselves into for a whole day. Perhaps a day off from school wasn’t worth it? Can they feign sickness, and go back to school? Sure, they miss the person who died, but still…
Here’s where the real stars of Grief Camp, the four legged therapists, begin to work their magic, and the conversation flows: Look at that one, he’s cute. That one doesn’t like you. Yes he does. He doesn’t like you! Awe, he’s so adorable. Can I comb his hair? What if he steps on me with his paws? They’re not paws, they’re hooves. Whatever, I just don’t want him to be stepping on me!
They start talking to and about the horses, and some the apprehension visibly drains away. Every camp, someone jumps back and shrieks. The horses stay put, and generally the teen approaches again. “Go on, just touch him, it’ll be okay.” They’re teens, so there’s concern about messed up hair or nails too.
Sometimes the kids know each other, and come from one school. Other times, the teens are selected from a variety of high schools and families in the Wings of Hope Hospice service area. Either way, the horses are ready, waiting by the fence. They are both a welcome distraction for the new arrivals and a catalyst for the grief work the participants are bravely choosing to explore today.
It’s a farm, so of course there’s horse poop, and horsey smells, something someone inevitably comments on during the first sixty seconds or so after they arrive. Because it’s a working farm, and we’re running a psychoeducational group, and it’s the modern age, we run through a few minutes of housekeeping stuff. The bathrooms are here, this is an electric fence, yes, you may pet the kitty. The real work for the day is about to begin, and the therapeutic team is glad we gathered for a moment of reflection, with a wish for healing for the participants, before the bus arrived.
I was privileged to do my first Pegasus Grief Camp through Wings of Hope, around 2006. I was a new therapist then, still in training, and committed to find a way to integrate horses with grief and loss counseling. Through the years, the curriculum evolved a bit, but the focus was always on allowing the horses to be a support for the teens as they told their stories. We’ve incorporated drawing, and art (including painting horses!), a walkabout journey with new friends; human and horse, and of course, an incredible amount of metaphor. Horses are the gateway for many to begin healing.
Sharing the Stories
With today’s group, as with every group of teens that do Pegasus Grief Camp, we explain to them that today is their day. They can share as much or as little as they would like. Most of them choose to state right away when we start our day by the campfire, who they are here for. Names, and dates of death, and a bit about the “death surround” (which just a clinical way of saying how the person at Grief Camp recounts and remembers the details of how the person died). are shared. Some kids talk a lot, some not so much, but we start out right from the beginning telling them that this is their day, their story, and their time to experience what it is like to have horses there to companion with them on their grief journey.
I’m always struck, as is the rest of the treatment team, of how quickly they step up to show empathy for each other. Even if they have just met. Some of the kids have good support systems at home, others less so, and most of them have family who is grieving also. We quickly get to the point of why we are spending the day with horses while we talk about grief.
The kids get it. They quickly get how they and the horses have a lot in common. The horses live in herds; the kids exist in packs themselves—either at home or at school. The horses are very social animals. We leave our campfire time and our breakfast snacks (and goodness these kids can eat, but we know grief is such hard, difficult work, and work makes us hungry), and are in the arena or paddock with the horses as the sun continues to rise.
Choosing an Animal
“Now that you’ve observed the horses from a distance, we’d like you to go into the arena, and choose an animal you think you might like to work with. Do what feels comfortable to get to know the horses, remembering that horses are very good at keeping themselves safe, and we encourage you to do the same. We’re here to help if you need us.”
A bit about safety. Anyone who has watched even one cartoon or comedy movie featuring a horse has already observed the worst of horse behavior. You may never have stepped foot on a farm, but in is in the general base of knowledge of most people that you don’t walk behind a horse. Rules and safety are important, of course, but one of the most important things about this experience is the immediate feedback that horses give. The horses chosen for this work like people. They genuinely like to be with them. As with all of us, they have good days and bad, and what a metaphor for those grieving people, (and that will eventually be all of us, several times in our lifetime), who are interacting with them today. Particularly when grieving, we feel a lot of emotion.
The EAP Model
The Equine Assisted Psychotherapy model relies on an interdisciplinary team of professionals; those trained and certified in both mental health, (as licensed mental health professionals), and equine specialists (those folks who know horse behavior, and can recognize what horses are communicating and if and when they are stressed and need a break). For Camp Pegasus, our team is dually trained, and as in any successful partnership, rely on trust and communication. Our interaction must model healthy interaction for the teens.
One of the most important things about an experiential equine assisted grief camp is to hold a safe space for the participants. Camp Pegasus is a place to allow them to build relationships, while feeling all the feelings that come up, both positive and negative. They often notice that the horses don’t leave them when they are sad. That is a huge part of what may give them hope for healing. Horses stay, even if others have left. Perhaps there is the opportunity to still find joy and still mourn the death of someone they loved.
We do a lot of psychoeducation. There are many opportunities to process their losses, but because we are doing it in the horse arena, with the horses, conversation seems to flow a bit more freely. Yes, they have these signs and signals of grief, they report, but equally often they’ll say that they notice that their horse is also feeling sad, has a stomach ache, doesn’t look like it slept well, seems like it is tired or lonely today. What an opportunity for them to both be nurtured, and give nurturing back to their horse, with a brush or a pat. In that reciprocity, I believe they find the beginnings of hope.
When the kids ask the names of the horses, we do a little dance with them, and tell them for today, they get to call the horses what they’d like. This simple permission often yields great discussion among the teens. Horses are named after people who have died, given names of rock bands and celebrities, and often are given powerful names like Faith and Hope. As the treatment team steps back, while horses are brushed, stories of those who died are shared over the tops of manes. Support is asked for, and given. It is, as we say in Equine Psychotherapy, the power of the moment, the power of the pause.
Our day goes quickly, with horses brushed; horses led over obstacles the kids have built to represent some of the challenges in their grief. We break for lunch, and do some drawings that express how our heart is filled with many emotions, and what we’d like our grief to look like in six months. The kids have an amazing openness with each other, and us; they talk of times they got in trouble, and times they feel lonely. They talk of great choices they’ve made to cope, and some not so good ones. They lean into each other’s stories, like they leaned into the horses. Watching them comfort each other is incredibly humbling.
We talk about honoring and commemorating those who have died, and how we might honor their memory with our activities and thoughts. We’re back in the arena, doing more work with the horses, and we watch the groups coming together. Horses and kids that were working separately in the morning, are hanging out together, doing more activities together, perhaps crying a bit together, and in what might be some of the most important parts of this day, playing together with each other, and the horses.
Grief is Exhausting
Griefwork is hard work. Our grief hits us in waves at the strangest times, and knocks us off our feet, making us feel like we’ve been socked in the stomach. It’s hard work, and it’s exhausting. And, much to our chagrin, the world doesn’t stop so we can do it. In fact, the world, at large, is often fairly uncomfortable with our grief. They want us to be done with it, now! They don’t want to hear about it anymore. Teens have family issues, some that may be exacerbated by the death. They still have school, and any individual or family challenges may be compounded by their mourning and grief.
I always like to say that the “casserole circuit”, that is, folks bringing over food, and checking in, ends at about three months post death. That’s exactly when the numbness and shock starts wearing off and even stronger pain sets it.
A Day with Horses
Pegasus Grief Camp is an opportunity for the teens to have a day that is dedicated to them, a day with horses who care, and with caring adults who do too. There are no expectations on how their grief should look, and we’ve rarely even had to remind them of basic courtesy or farm rules. We talk about coping strategies and things that they might take with them at the end of our day. By the time we are winding down, they’ve spend almost half a full day with the horses. They report feeling more peaceful, less anxious, more connected, more able to find hope.
Our last activity usually involves painting symbols on the horses, and a walkabout—where we take a stone or stones in our pocket to honor those who died, and connect as one big group—horses, kids, and staff. We often use lead ropes, and hold hands as we walk the outskirts of the arena together. The horse are painted, and we have talked about what rain does and will do to the paint when the horses go back to pasture. Rain can purify and cleanse—their symbols, often symbols of pain and loss, wash into the soil. But rain can also heal and grow—rain will wash the same paint into the same soil, but also cause new growth to begin. Grass can grow, so can flowers, so can hope.
I’ve done many of these camps over the last ten years, and I am profoundly moved by what I see painted on these horses—flowers, crosses, infinity signs, peace signs, the names of the dead with hearts around them, and perhaps most moving to me, the word “Hope” , completely covering the side of the horse, in multi-colors. If, at the end of the day, each teen feels both a connection to a horse, and even a glimmer of hope, then Camp Pegasus has more than succeeded.
Preparing to Go Home
The bus comes too soon, and there is a scramble for extra granola bars and a grab for cookies to take with. They are packed with journals we gave them, (and hopefully some ideas for writing), stress balls, and each other’s contact information. As a therapist, I have no illusions that the handout sent home on “Signs and Signals of Grief” is going to be as interesting as the granola bars. That’s okay. We’ve told them throughout the day many times, that what they are feeling is normal, that they are normal.
More importantly the horses have told them that too. The horses showed up, came up to them, and stayed with them when they cried or said they were mad. The horses posed for a selfie, let them braid their mane, shared a bite of an apple. The horses let themselves be kissed goodbye, numerous times. One more hug, one more reminder of time to get back to school, and the kids are back on the bus. They are not only good representatives of their schools and community, even in their profound grief, but good representatives of humanity. When they leave, I always tear up again. I always have a bit more hope.
It’s midafternoon, but the campfire is still smoldering. In many cultures that means that there is continuity between ancestors and friends who have gone before. A link between the past and the present; connecting us to each other. As the smoke rises, the embers glow as the campfire dies for today. I take a deep breath and take it all in. This IS life, the very stuff of life. The joy and pain of being alive. Of experiencing the death of someone we love. The honor of loving so much it hurts so much to say goodbye. I take another deep breath of gratitude for my life, say a short prayer for those I have loved and lost, hug my co-facilitators, and go with them to put horses away and to get the barn ready for another day.
Copywright @ Natalya “Tasha” Federinko, MA, LPC, EAGALA Certified
March 12, 2017