After being cooped up in quarantine for months, last weekend I jumped at the opportunity to meet up with my cousin and join a friendly, low-key horseback riding competition. I am a novice rider at best, but my cousin has been riding basically her entire life. I have always enjoyed spending time with her, being on the farm, and gazing around at all of the gentle giants. This competition was by no means cut-throat, and I operated at turtle-speed, weaving in and out of poles and around barrels. The obstacle courses were timed, but truthfully, I didn’t care if it took me 10 seconds or 10 minutes to go through the course. I was just happy to have some sense of normalcy in my life in the midst of this global pandemic.
Given that I have not been on a horse in a year, the first time I tried to mount my cousin’s horse, Duncan, I swung my leg over him with too much force. I was lopsided on him and he was uncomfortable. He started neighing and spinning around to try to get me off of him. I flew off and hit the ground (ALWAYS WEAR YOUR HELMET). Yes, I was hurt, a little bruised, a little banged up, but I was alright. I understood that Duncan was just trying to tell me I was making him uncomfortable because I was sitting on him lopsided. I took a moment to collect myself, got back on Duncan, and had a blast riding him for the rest of the day.
The following day, as I was speaking to my therapist about falling off the horse, she asked “Weren’t you angry at that horse for trying to get you off of him?”
Truth be told, the thought of getting angry at Duncan (who is a total sweetheart, by the way) for trying to throw me off of him did not even cross my mind. Why would I be angry? That was his only way of communicating with me that something did not feel right, that he was uncomfortable and possibly even in pain. It seemed odd to me that my therapist would even ask me that sort of question.
And then it hit me. In that moment I realized why I have such a deep-seated connection with animals, big and small, mean and kind. Animals do not have voices to let you know when something is wrong; and throughout many parts of my life, neither did I.
You see, animals simply do not have the language to tell you when something is wrong with them. Therefore, they communicate with us in other ways. Sometimes this looks like a dog who bites and growls viciously at humans when he feels threatened. Other times, this looks like a horse trying to get you off of him because he isn’t comfortable with the way you are sitting on him. The only way animals can let you know that something is wrong is by acting out.
Sadly, child abuse can cause us to behave in similar ways.
When something is being done to us as children, our brains have not developed the language to speak about what is happening to us. We do not know how to tell others that something is wrong because we don’t even understand it for ourselves.
So what do children do when they can’t speak up about being abused?
They try to communicate through their actions. Sometimes those actions involve self destruction, such as self harm, refusal to eat, binge eating, sneaking alcohol, etc. Other times, those actions involve hurting others, like getting into fights with peers , bullying others, or stealing. Some kids become the dog who feels backed into a corner who will growl and bite anyone in order to protect themselves. Other kids may become the horse who hurts its rider because he had no other way of communicating that something didn’t feel right. Silenced children often hurt themselves or others in the hopes that someone will realize that they, too, are being hurt. Abused children can relate so much to animals because both have learned to speak without using their voices.
In my practice, my patients with histories of child abuse tend to connect with my therapy dog, Noel, much more than my patients without an abuse history. Again, I believe that this is because child abuse survivors relate to animals on a different level. They bond so well with animals because they have learned, from childhood, to communicate without using words.
One of the biggest parts of healing from childhood abuse is learning to find your voice and use it as a way to remind yourself that you are no longer that scared, silent child. As we heal from our abuse, we become different than animals because we develop the ability to speak up when things do not feel right. As survivors of childhood abuse, however, I do believe there is a part of us that will always have a special connection with animals, because we will always know what it is like to be vulnerable, scared, and silent.